Cyber Security in Africa – Harvesting Opportunities from Growing Threats

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By Janet Abena Quainoo

Coping mechanisms such as increased use of virtual workspaces, online marketplaces and e-governance have become the norm these days as the world is struggling to recover from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this presents opportunities to revamp economies and streamline public service delivery, it has also come with another challenge that may heighten exposure to cybercrime if not checked.

Many countries in Africa have experienced a rise in reports of digital threats and malicious cyber activities. The results include sabotaged public infrastructure, losses from digital fraud and illicit financial flows, and national security breaches involving espionage and intelligence theft by military groups. Addressing these concerns requires a greater commitment to cybersecurity. These require enforcement of policy safeguards, risk prevention and management approaches, and building technologies and infrastructures that can protect each country’s cyber environment, as well as individual and corporate end-user assets.

The Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI) report examined the cybersecurity landscape in 194 countries by the end of 2020. It assessed their commitment to improving cybersecurity based on five pillars: legal, technical, organizational, capacity development, and cooperation. However, the latest GCI report released in June 2021 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) suggests Africa’s levels of commitment to cybersecurity as well as the capacity to respond to threats remain low compared to other continents.

Among the factors creating a conducive environment for cybercrime in Africa are limited public awareness and knowledge regarding the potential risks of using cyberspace, underdevelopment of digital infrastructure, and institutional capacity to coordinate and implement available cybersecurity laws and policies. This implies that there is an urgent need to improve the cybersecurity approach in African countries.

In an interview with Engr Robinson Tonbari Sibe PhD (CEO Digital Footprints Ltd Abuja), we delve into cybersecurity and Digital Forensics, what it entails and the future of Nigeria in the Tech space.

With your experience in IT over the years, can you enlighten us on what cybersecurity and digital forensics is and their significance in the tech space?

“It is the systematic application of technologies, processes, controls, to protecting systems and generally network resources, against unauthorized access to cyber-attacks. It is not a single activity, but a collection of layers of processes and activities of all technology applications and control to protect system and network resources. It is structured to perform four cardinal roles of protection, detection, investigation and remediation. Digital forensic itself is a subset of cybersecurity so it is also part of the investigation earlier mentioned. It is however focused more on when an incidence happens. It is basically the use of scientific methods to preserve, acquire, collect, analyse, interpret and present digital evidence from a wide range of digital sources. Digital forensics doesn’t only investigate, but it works in such a way that if evidence is sent to court, it is legally defensible. It is beyond just using it to investigate cyberattacks. It can be used to reconstruct events and can take you into the education and justice system, as well as health, manufacturing and other sectors. It helps in manufacturing; for instance, we are in the 4th industrial revolution also known as industry 4.0 where there is smart manufacturing and we can use forensic devices which can allow you collect data in an industrial space, you can also go through your logs and investigate in that regard.

 Over the last decade, there has been a massive acceleration of technology adoption in the commercial space in Nigeria, and the world over.  The COVID -19 pandemic has also further enforced this with its accompanying lockdowns forcing companies to scramble online to stay afloat in business. The number of users has increased, and thus, there is the need to hedge the risk involved in the tech space to reduce cyberattacks. This is a global issue and not just in the African continent.”

With this era of digitization, what do you have to say about entrepreneurship in engineering?

“I believe these two are fundamental concepts, and they hold biggest potentials to address the poverty and unemployment crisis in Africa. We are talking about technology which is basically innovation and engineering, with agriculture. For me, those two hold huge potential for solving the unemployment crisis in Africa. The rapid digitization and increased connectivity result in more options to get your products. Before this time, if you had a product to sell, you had to go physically to the market, but with technology and massive digitization, you can now reach out beyond even your geographical space. Engineering products and services are now available across the sectors, and therefore, the significance of entrepreneurship in engineering and innovation cannot be overemphasized. It is a catalyst for job creation; and with this, more engineering products that will accelerate production in other sectors will be addressed. As in the agriculture sector, agriculture is practiced largely at the subsistence level in Africa creating a big gap that technology can address through mechanization, storage, and many areas. This is an area where African nations are lacking, and they need to strategically put in place programs that will catalyze growth in innovation.”

Can you give us an assessment of both the public and private sector if they are investing adequately in Information Technology, since you have consulted for several clients in both industries?

“Let me start from the public sector space; if you look at the budget for the last 20 years in Nigeria for instance the amount set aside for IT it is very poor. There is no sector or economy that IT does not play a key role in, as it is actually a tool to drive growth at the national level. Unfortunately, the amount set aside for IT in Nigeria is very poor when compared to other countries and this affects the efficiency of work in the public sector. Jobs that could be done within minutes take days due to the inadequate investments in the public sector. The private sector is a bit of a mixed reaction, they are also not there yet, though there are some bits of positives here and there. Though some sectors are trying their best, the financial sector (Banks), has taken a lead when it comes to IT. This helped them a lot during the pandemic(lockdown), as they continued to serve their customers on various platforms. The oil and gas sector has also done well, but beyond this, investment in IT has been abysmal.”

As CEO and lead forensic examiner of Digital Footprints Nigeria Limited, what has been the trajectory for the company?

Digital Footprint is a relatively young company. The first thing we did was to do intensive house training to make sure our staff are in tune with the company’s vision and mission. We spent a chunk of our beginning focusing on that. We are structured basically like a research and development company, such that we always bring new innovations to find solutions to problems. We are the first well structured and privately owned company for forensic examination laboratories in Nigeria. We offer cybersecurity consultations to companies. The first challenge we faced was the fact that people didn’t know what we do. There was a total lack of cybersecurity knowledge and awareness and it is difficult to sell a product that people are not aware of. But we have made quite progress across other sectors and we are being approached by companies across the country. Because of this we have made cybersecurity awareness a project for our corporate social responsibility and have forged partnerships with other organizations to preach this gospel of cyber security awareness.”

Do you think the Nigerian university educational curriculum, especially in the engineering department, adequately prepares students for the job market?

“The answer is an emphatic no. About five years ago, I did a TED talk on this, which addressed some of the concerns you have just raised. I am afraid our curriculum is still stuck to old assumptions and premise and out of touch with modern dynamics of the market. We produce millions of graduates that know everything about job applications but know nothing about job creation. We produce graduates with fancy certificates but no functional and practical skills needed in the industry. The curriculum needs to be overhauled and reworked. I am glad some universities are beginning to think in this direction and reworking their curriculum to answer industrial questions rather than just churning out certificates. Therefore, we are in partnership with one of the national universities to try and rework and review the curricula for their forensics department to reflect modern industrial realities. We are also looking forward to helping them design their laboratory to reflect the modern industry. We are also looking at training for students, and a handshake between industry and universities will go a long way to produce graduates with industry-based knowledge.”

What is Nigeria’s preparedness at fighting cybersecurity considering the fast pace in which digitization has become part and parcel of our everyday life?

“Well, sadly, the reality is Nigeria is one of the hotbeds for cybersecurity in the world if you look at the figures on cybercrime. Nigeria has, however recorded remarkable growth if you look at how ICT has contributed massively to national GDP. ICT contributes about 11% to the national GDP, if I am not mistaken. Nigeria has about 140 million active internet subscribers compared to the previous years. Therefore, the reality is as more people gain access, the propensity for cybercrimes or attacks also widens. There has, however been some remarkable development; one of such is the national cybersecurity policy and strategy; CBN and other law enforcement agencies are building capacities to fight cybercrime. However, there is still more to be done to contain these issues of cyberattacks.”

What is the future for Nigeria in the global tech space?

“Nigeria is an emerging market; it creates potentials particularly in the tech space. The tech space has witnessed astronomical growth in the last two decades. For instance, in telecommunications, in 2000 Nigeria had just about 500,000 landlines, but today as of last year the country has over 193 million phones active phone lines. We also have an active young population that is very receptive to technology. There has also been remarkable development in the tech space. Fintex space has done remarkably well in the last few years. Nigeria has a big market, and the use of computers, phones and other technological devices shows that Nigeria is ready to take another leap and if policies are put in place and enforced, Nigeria will be one of the biggest in the tech space.”

Any message for the youths concerning engineering?

“Well, they are fortunate that there is easy internet access now, and you can do a lot on the internet. You are in an era where your geographical space does not limit you. You can learn a lot online, get solid books to read and improve on yourself without solely depending on what you are taught in school. Use your time and internet access wisely, and the world would be at your fingertips. You will also realize that you can also contribute your quota to the world.”

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