A few days after my last column on Africa, COVID-19 and the disruptive concept of work, I saw a screaming headline from a Time Magazine news article on the 7th of May, 2020: “South Africa Parliament Video Call Hacked With Explicit Images“. The South African Parliament, like most parliaments in the world, switched to virtual meetings, in respect for the COVID-19 stay-at-home public health advisory. The meeting, which was done via Zoom, was already in session when hackers rudely interrupted with pornographic images. The Speaker of the National Assembly and meeting’s Chairperson, Thandi Modise, was left embarrassed as she was at the receiving end of a barrage of racial insults. South Africa is not alone in the “Zoombombing”. Across the world, there were several reports of incidences of hacking of virtual meetings in schools, businesses, churches, etc. Welcome to the zoom world. In this article, I will look at the emerging risks associated with telework and remote work, as it concerns the continent. There is always a risk component for every shift, and this is not an exception.
We have seen several schools in the continent follow their western counterparts, by announcing shifts to online mode. From Cape Town to Cairo, Nairobi to Nigeria, several universities in the continent have commenced the switch. Beyond schools, there are also other businesses across different sectors that have transitioned online. As enterprises transition to a flexible work mode, it is important to do some self-evaluation and risk assessment. Does African Enterprises have the financial muscle to invest in new technologies to implement telework, sustainably? Do African countries have the required technological backbone to sustain the switch? Does African businesses and institutions have dedicated and competent Information Technology teams to support such flexibility? Do African countries have robust cybersecurity laws to prosecute cybercrimes that will likely increase within this period? To answer these questions, let’s examine some of the emerging issues.
Regulatory Framework – How flexible and adaptive is the regulatory framework? For instance, in Nigeria, the National Universities Commission regulates higher education. While they have given the go-ahead to universities to make the online switch, however, it is unclear how they have adapted their regulatory functions to the emerging realities. Do they have clear guidelines and checklists to guide institutions in their implementation? For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, as early as 2016, issued a Guide to enterprise telework, remote access, and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) security. This document serves as a brilliant guideline for organisations seeking to adopt enterprise telework or even the BYOD protocol. How many regulatory agencies or institutions in Africa could boast of such proactive and articulated guide?
Broadband Access and Internet Connectivity – Internet connectivity is the backbone for remote work. Unfortunately, the figures from Africa are not impressive. According to the World Bank, only less than a third of the African population, have access to broadband connectivity. The real picture is even worse when you look at the individual countries on the continent. According to data by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the total number of African households in 2019, with internet connectivity is 17.8 per 100 inhabitants. Compare this to Arab states with 57.1 per 100; Asia and Pacific with 50.9 per 100; Europe with 86.5 per 100; and the Americas with 71.8 per 100.
If you probe further at the country-level, you can see how bleak the figures are. The 2017 ITU figures for percentage of individuals using the internet in select countries of Africa, shows: Algeria – 47.69%; Angola – 14.34%; Chad – 6.5%; Congo DR – 8.65%; Niger – 5.25%; Eritrea – 1.31%; Egypt – 44.95%; Ghana – 39%; Kenya – 17.83%; Nigeria – 42%; South Africa – 56.1%; etc. Compare this to USA – 87.27%; United Kingdom – 94.62%; UAE – 98.45%; Switzerland – 89.69%; Sweden – 95.51%; Kuwait – 100%; Japan – 84.59%; Canada – 91%; etc. For Africa to leverage the opportunities of teleworking, the continent will need to do a lot more to bridge the digital divide impeding remote work. It will take leadership and financial commitment. A 2019 Report by the World Bank recommends an estimated cost of $30 Billion or an annual investment of $9 billion per year, to bridge the digital divide in Africa by 2030. Africa, are you ready?
Cybersecurity – Cybersecurity was already a major concern in Africa before the COVID-19 pandemic. The cybercrime risks have already cost the continent a lot; from reputational loss to financial loss. In a 2019 report, the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Company (NDIC) reported that the Nigerian banking sector lost about 15 billion Naira to fraud in 2018; most of this was perpetrated through cybercrime. Beyond financial loss, there are also cybersecurity threats to national infrastructure, which the continent needs to brace up to.
As highlighted in the case of the South African Parliament, Cybersecurity is a major concern in a remote work environment. While there is no completely secure environment, however, most enterprises have implemented some reasonable level of security, centralized at the enterprise level. Remote work would mean some level of decentralization or relegation of control while trusting and hoping your staff will follow a strict security regulation (for organizations that have one) at home. The remote worker may not enjoy the protective cover of a corporate firewall, with his mobile internet, and in some cases with his personal modem. He will have to be his own IT Security Officer at home while working with little or no supervision. Such proliferation of connections could open the system to cyber-attacks.
There are also issues bothering on privacy concerns, as remote workers take home classified documents in some cases. We have read of workers who would have to rush to a public facility to meet up with a teleconference. In some cases, he might even use public Wi-Fi and further risk intrusion and compromise through shoulder surfing. How is the remote worker able to work within the framework of best practices in Information Security and Information Governance (that is, if aware of the existence of the term)?
It is also important to ask ourselves how robust are the cybersecurity laws of the continent? The United States has a complex set of cybersecurity laws; either directly or indirectly, relating to cybercrime. In Nigeria, we only have the amended Evidence Act 2011, that allowed for admissibility of digital evidence, and the Cybercrime Act of 2014, which is the central piece of legislation for combatting cybercrime. In today’s world of dynamic, complex and evolving cybercrimes, are both laws robust enough? I’m sure you know the answer.
Beyond this, there are also other complexities of telework, that is global in nature (not limited to Africa). For instance, if a staff that is being investigated for breaching privacy or security protocols is using his own device at home, he might take cover under the 4th Amendment in the U.S. (and the various equivalents in the African continent), to prevent unlawful search and seizure, without first going through the tortuous process of obtaining search warrants. On the contrary, if the staff was working from the office, chances are that he would be using a corporate digital device (except there was a BYOD protocol), which can be retrieved, seized and digital evidence acquired any time, without search warrants. Also, there are are other global challenges of jurisdictional complexities, which are not unique to Africa. Such obstacles might delay or impede investigation and prosecution of digital crimes, and is therefore a major risk to telework.
Cybersecurity risk is an elaborate area that cannot be exhausted in one column. In summary, we need to ask ourselves the following questions: How prepared are African nations and businesses to mitigate or manage the emerging cybersecurity risks of teleworking? How much premium do we pay on information security? How robust are our cybersecurity laws? What is the current state of forensic readiness of law enforcement agents in the continent, to take on the barrage of cybercrime reports that is to come? How far the continent will go, will depend on the quality of the answers to the questions raised.
Cost – The switch to remote work also have associated costs. While some are one-off investment costs in hardware and software, others are recurrent and operational expenses that ensue. This switch is happening in the middle of the year. Most institutions and enterprises work with a strict budget cycle, and would not have contemplated such fundamental shift to teleworking. To overcome this risk, enterprises and institutions will need to adopt creative and flexible financing schemes, to plug in gaps, and make necessary investments in the wake of expected revenue dip.
Competence and Expertise – Beyond the need for investing in new technologies, there is also the need to invest in new digital skills. In a 2019 Report by the world bank, Africa will need to invest $18 billion in ICT skills and content in the next 10 years, to bridge the digital divide. This is now even more urgent given the urgency of the switch to telework. Training is important to ensure a seamless switch, or at least manage risks responsibly. For instance, in the case of schools that switched from classroom to online, how many bothered to properly train their Teachers and Lecturers, not only in the use of technology but in the psychology and pedagogical strategies in an online environment? How prepared is the continent to invest in expertise, competence, and technological capability?
Psychosocial Support Structures – While most universities and other educational institutions in the continent have announced the switch to online learning (and rightly so), not many have considered the associated stress, trauma and psychological challenges that students may face, adjusting to the abrupt switch. It is therefore important to activate online counselling services and psychological support, to cater for students struggling with the shift. This challenge is not limited to those in academia, as there are also workers in other industries who may struggle to cope working from home, due to a combination of factors. Employers should look to invest more in such support structures help staff facing such difficulties.
In conclusion, innovation is great; and it is good to see African businesses and institutions adapt to changing times. However, as we innovate to stay afloat, it is good to go with best practices in innovation management, to float sustainably. These emerging risks in telework are expected and demands our attention. There is the need to creatively mitigate or manage these risks, by being proactive in putting in place processes, systems and structures. These challenges should be viewed as opportunities and not roadblocks for telework. It is possible with the right leadership and investment!
Tombari Sibe is an Information Technology Consultant and Development Strategist. He can be reached via:
Linked in: www.linkedin.com/in/tombarisibe