The use of technology is rapidly expanding across sub-Saharan Africa, putting its people and businesses at risk as cybercriminals take advantage. Experts say this trend emphasizes a critical need for new policies and tools designed for the region's distinct operating environment.
IDC data shows sub-Saharan Africa's ICT market is predicted to grow from $95.4 billion in 2020 to $104.2 billion by 2023. Technologies including cloud, social media, and big data are all key areas of growth and components to a sharp rise in digital crime. The World Economic Forum considers cybercrime one of the three greatest threats to Africa, where sub-Saharan nations lose millions of dollars to cyberattacks each year – a very large sum in proportion to their GDP.
Cybersecurity consultant Laura Tich and security researcher Evelyn Kilel noticed a lack of data on the security landscape of sub-Saharan Africa when designing a curriculum for members of Shehacks_KE. The duo co-founded this organization to create a community of women in infosec across Kenya. They offer educational initiatives like meetups, bootcamps, and webinars, and partner with organizations to see where they can help fill the gaps in security talent.
Their own research and professional experience have given Tich and Kilel greater insight into the region's security threats. Mobile banking, for example, is ripe for attack. "Mobile money and mobile platforms are the key platforms where we transact, where we process our cashflows," Kilel explains. Africa leads the world in the use of mobile money transfers, she and Tich say, with an estimated 14% of its citizens receiving money via mobile transfers like Kenya's MPesa.
Mobile money is a prime target; both users and providers are hit with different kinds of attacks. Social engineering and reverse engineering are common on financial platforms. Social media has also become a popular space for social engineering threats. "When it comes to mobile money and social media, some of our biggest threats are mainly human-based," Tich says.
Where Sub-Saharan Businesses Stand
While progress has been made in enterprise cybersecurity, work remains to be done. Small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) typically have small budgets and tend to not include cybersecurity, Tich says. Many companies make security an afterthought. Larger firms tend to have stronger security departments, she adds, and some have bug-bounty programs.
"We can say the bigger organizations do know the value of cybersecurity while the smaller organizations, as much as they might know about cybersecurity, they do not have the budget for it, so it becomes a problem," she explains.
SMEs are adapting to their situations by moving to the cloud, which allows them to pay as they go, minimize their infrastructure, and operate more easily, Kilel says. Most work with Google Cloud and AWS; however, she adds that more businesses are also moving toward Azure. Last year Microsoft opened its first Africa Development Center in Kenya and Nigeria. Tich expects this will lead to technological growth, "but we also need people to come in with security expertise."
As much as the region is catching up, Tich notes security will continue to pose a problem to enterprises. Some organizations, especially larger ones, still use legacy systems that are susceptible to cyberattacks and may fear telling clients if an incident takes place. The technology, human attack vectors, budget, and economy all determine how attacks are constructed and the attacker's approach to specific platforms in the sub-Saharan region.
How to Improve: Brainstorming Policies and Solutions
In building out their SheHacks_KE educational efforts, Tich and Kilel realized there wasn't much data for them to work with.
"There's little to no data about the cybersecurity field, or the cybersecurity landscape, in sub-Saharan Africa," says Tich. "And we realized that this is a problem because if we do not know what is needed, then we won't know what solutions to offer." Research is essential, she adds, as it helps them better explain to companies why they need a certain security tool or skill set.
In addition to improved research, the experts point to a need for effective policies and tools designed for the distinct operating environment of the sub-Saharan region. Most organizations struggle with limited budget, high cost of security products, use of pirated versions of security tools, and the absence of sufficient tools to provide accurate data. They propose encouraging local security pros to develop open source or affordable tools for the local market.
They also emphasize the need for policies on an organizational and national level to address security incidents, voicing a need for better data protection policies to protect both people and businesses from cybercrime. If data is stolen, there should be a process to take care of it.
"Policies are important on an organizational level, but it's very important also from a regional and national level," Tich says. "We have to work with policymakers, other techies, other security professionals, and other stakeholders in order to come up with better cybersecurity policies for the regions."
Tich and Kilel will share insights into the sub-Saharan security landscape, along with proposed policies and solutions, in their upcoming Black Hat USA talk, "Building Cyber Security Strategies for Emerging Industries in Sub-Saharan Africa," to take place on Aug. 6, 2020.
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