Indian Army Captain Vineet Kumar had his first brush with the internet and computers at the age of six. By age 10 he had picked up hacking. And by the time he was 14 he had already started his entrepreneurial journey.
Fast forward to 2019, at age 30, he is the Founder and President of Cyber Peace Foundation, a non-profit organisation working towards making the internet a safe space for all, while serving as an officer in the Territorial Army, the second line of defence after the regular Army for people pursuing civilian professions. Capt Vineet carries out a mandatory 60-day service every year.
By age 21, he had also built a profitable cyber security startup and exited it to become the first CTO and Head of Cyber Defense Research Centre (CDRC), a State government agency run by the Jharkhand police and the Government of Jharkhand. The Captain’s list of accomplishments are long and distinguished.
This is the incredible story of one Ranchi boy’s journey from child prodigy to entrepreneur to serving in the armed forces.
Seeds of inspiration
The early seeds of inspiration came from Capt Vineet’s father, VK Roy, who was the Head of Technology at the State-owned Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC) in Ranchi. Roy was “extremely involved” with computers through the 70s and 80s and was “actively into programming”.
Reminiscing about how he got interested in computers and the internet, Capt Vineet says, “I used to go to my father’s office and fiddle with the computer there. He would allow me to use it for an hour. Back then, in 1995-96, the internet was new, and HEC was one of its early adopters.”
And Roy actively encouraged his son to pick up as much as he could about the internet in the dial-up era. “He would let me connect to the internet for a minute, learn what I could, and then make me disconnect. Sometimes he would extend it to two minutes,” he smiles.
For his tenth birthday, Vineet requested his father to get him a rental computer for two days. Seeing him completely engrossed and in awe of the machine for those two days, Vineet’s father decided to buy him that computer. Vineet had already started to write programmes on paper, before he even got his first computer. After that there was no stopping the prodigy, who soon became a pro at programming.
The great hack
It was around the turn of the millennium when Vineet got interested in hacking after he came across a channel on an internet relay chat (IRC) for hackers. “I got into the channel and met a grey hat hacker. I told him I wished to learn. First, he showed me a live hack of a bank in America. I was quite shocked. Second, he hacked my own computer. This made me very scared. Dad had his office documents and I had personal documents on the machine. I was naturally petrified but at the same time I was intrigued and wanted to learn,” says Capt Vineet.
While a black hat hacker is someone who looks to exploit cyber security vulnerabilities for personal gains or other malicious reasons, a grey hat is someone who may sometimes violate laws and ethical standards but does not have any malicious intent. A white hat hacker, on the other hand, is someone who hacks into systems and networks to identify and help plug risks and vulnerabilities.
Interestingly enough, Vineet become a white hat by learning the ropes from a grey hat hacker! “He gave me links to some online forums where I could learn. Over the next couple of years, I was at it day and night,” he says.
Then, in 2001, he enrolled with a Microsoft training centre where they taught network security and became a Microsoft certified systems engineer (MCSE) at 14. “It was around this time that I met a few like-minded people and formed an anti-hacking group. We were all [white hat] hackers and wanted to use our skills to make a positive impact. This was also a time when India and Pakistan were locked in cyber warfare, defacing each other’s websites,” notes Capt Vineet.
And all this was happening while Vineet was still a student at Ranchi’s Army School. Calling himself an “average student”, he notes that his principal and teachers were very encouraging and accommodating of his focus and passion towards cybersecurity.
But in all this did he not miss out on a regular childhood, one filled with fun and games? “I never did have a regular life growing up, I was constantly working day and night. So, yes, I did miss out and I missed adventure sports, something I was and am still keen on. I don’t regret it, but I plan to retire early in the next seven to eight years and fulfill all my wishes,” the young entrepreneur notes.
Speaking of the initial days of the anti-hacking group’s work, Capt Vineet says, “When we started working on it in 2003, there was initially a lot of resistance. Some people even threatened to put us in jail for accessing their networks. Slowly, they realised we were trying to help and did not have any malicious intent.”
In 2004, the group registered as a non-profit under the name NAG (National Anti-hacking Group). And to focus on his entrepreneurial journey, Vineet, then in Class 11, decided to take a gap year from school.
In 2006, Vineet along with Mumbai-based white hat hacker Yash Kadakia, set up a for-profit company called Security Brigade and managed to bag clients like Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), HDFC, Bajaj, LG, and Vodafone, among others. Business was good and the duo would donate a part of the company’s revenue to NAG, the anti-hacking group. In 2011 as Vineet was graduating from Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology with a degree in IT infrastructure management, he decided to exit the company and start working with government.
The government diaries
When Vineet was 18 and still in school, he was invited by a top intelligence official in the government to come to Delhi and give a presentation on the state of cyber security in India. With just a night’s preparation, the teenager ended up presenting a live hack to show India’s vulnerability to cyber threats to an audience that included top government officials.
“I presented a hack where I breached a major bank, then a telecom company, and finally I hacked into government networks. At the time they were shocked by my presentation. Thereafter, various government agencies remained in constant touch,” says Vineet.
Cut to 2011, and after exiting from the cyber security startup, he joined CDRC as its first CTO to set up a State-level agency for defence against cyber threats. After two years with the agency, Vineet left for England as a Chevening scholar to pursue post-graduation in Cyber Defence and Information Assurance.
After returning from England, Vineet, along with SN Pradhan, Additional DG of Jharkhand Police; Varun Banka, Co-founder, SocialCops; and some Army and Naval officers, set up “a think tank and a grassroots civil society body”.
The not-for-profit organisation Cyber Peace Foundation (CPF) aims to be a forum of discussions and initiatives on peace and responsible behaviour in the cyber world. On the CPF, Capt Vineet says, “We do anything and everything related to the safety and stability of cyber security. We work with organisations like the UN, Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and GIZ, and do outreach and social programmes.”
The key focus areas of the Cyber Peace Foundation include technology governance, policy review and advocacy, and capacity and capability creation and building through partnerships with various government organisations, academic institutions, and civil society entities.
“We work globally on multi-stakeholder initiatives with industries, government agencies, and regulatory bodies, promoting self-regulation to build collective resilience against cybercrimes and global threats of cyber warfare. We also work on all the issues that surround or affect the global digital spectrum,” he explains.
The Army story
It was in 2014 when an Army officer Vineet was working with suggested he consider joining the armed forces. “I studied at an Army school so I had nurtured a desire to join the forces. I applied for the all-India entrance exam for the Territorial Army, cleared it and underwent training at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. I thus became a commissioned officer and I carry out my duties every year,” Capt Vineet says, calling serving in the Indian Army as one of the most fulfilling and humbling experiences of his life.