The rise of digital technology presents a myriad of new inventions and conveniences and changes how people interact, communicate, and do business.
The immense benefits of technology carry with them cybersecurity risks. Given the complex and sometimes obscure nature of cyber threats, they are usually difficult to comprehend, identify and control.
Issues of outright theft, hacking, piracy, identity theft, and information misappropriation, among other cyber-related activities, come to the fore when it comes to cyber risks. In addition, national security risks exist in the digital space that poses a significant threat.
According to consulting firm Ovumone, it is estimated that the end of 2022 will see over a billion people having access to the internet. The rising internet access and improved digital usage open up the continent to increased online criminal activity.
“Cybercrime is shifting towards emerging economies. This is where the cybercriminals believe the low-hanging fruit is,” Bulent Teksoz, cybersecurity strategist, Symantec Middle East.
In an attempt to mitigate these risks, policies, laws, and monitoring measures have been put in place. The effect of these control measures in certain instances is to throttle the growth of the technology sector. As such, a balancing act between regulation and innovation is critical in taking advantage of digital technologies while preventing cybercrime.
Regulation lags behind innovation
However, in most instances, regulation has not risen to meet the growing cybercrimes.
Some countries have not developed regulatory frameworks for cybersecurity risk identification and mitigation. For example, few countries have data protection laws in place across the whole of Africa.
Some countries in Africa have draft laws pending adoption. Nonetheless, the balancing point is difficult to reach. On the one hand, technological innovations move faster than the pace at which regulation can keep up. Regulators end up playing a chase to the various technologies. On the other hand, regulation is stiff and prevents technology from flourishing.
For this reason, robust innovation that adapts quickly to change is critical. Archaic regulations that fail to proffer current solutions will only serve to perpetuate a backward continent that continues to be left behind.
A chief concern in terms of cyber regulation is the lack of adequate understanding of the cybersecurity landscape. In some instances, the prevalent perception of social media tools has been a view of these tools as a threat to national security. For example, Egypt, Ethiopia, Chad, Cameroon, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Mali have, on one occasion, shut down internet and social media use as a national security measure.
By concentrating on this view of cyberspace as a threat to political incumbents alone, little has been done regarding safeguarding cyberspace through protection laws.
The risk to personal information
The rise of social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook has created seamless communication platforms that promote cost-effective communication within and without borders. These communication platforms have been enablers of business activity and improvement in living standards.
As social media use rose, so did the risk of personal information misuse and privacy concerns. Most recently, WhatsApp asked users to permit information sharing with sister social media site Facebook. This raised alarm bells with several people, who opted to switch to other platforms like Telegrams.
This is just one example of the extent to which privacy is a concern when using the internet.
Another primary concern pertains to competition. With the rise of big data corporations like Google and WhatsApp, information lies in the hands of the few big corporations making it more susceptible to manipulation. For example, as mentioned before, platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp create one big entity that can easily take advantage of people’s data, tip markets in its favor, and drive it’s self into a mega-corporation, all without checks and balances.
While this poses a major concern, regulation in this regard will have to maintain the delicate balance of trying to reign in these potentially manipulative giants while allowing for growth and synergies that benefit the final consumer. In addition, forward-looking regulation that detects the rise of these mega-platforms before it happens is critical.
For example, in 2012, Facebook bought the social media picture sharing platform Instagram. At that time, Instagram was nothing short of a concept. But a quick move by Facebook detected a potential threat and instead wheeled it into their shed. The move was not seen as a threat to competition policies then, because of Instagram’s size. However, looking at the growth of Instagram now, it can be argued that antitrust regulators should have acted at that juncture.
This example highlights the complex nature of regulation within the digital framework.
Another major cyber threat is intellectual property infringement. Hacking and duplicating content and ideas affect African innovators and creatives. However, the enforcement of intellectual property rights is still relatively low in Africa.
The fact is that these infringements are not seen as an urgent matter, given that other breads and butter needs are more pressing. Also, enforcement of these laws can be challenging in the countries where most products available on the market, from phones, computers, software down to clothes and shoes, are pirated products and knock-offs. As such strict intellectual property laws are difficult to enforce given the high levels of poverty.
On top of that, regulation and policy direction in this regard is fragmented. Two organizations, namely the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI) and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), are in charge of enforcing intellectual property laws, including copyrights, trademarks, and patents. OAPI in the french speaking realm in Africa, while ARIPO handles the English speaking arena. Perhaps a single governing body under the auspices of an umbrella system like the AU could help integrate and coordinate effective intellectual property regulation.
The financial and business sectors also have their fair share of cybersecurity threats. With Africa having somewhat relaxed cyber-surveillance, the rise in e-commerce, e-banking, and other e based technologies in financial services may potentially be met by increased risks of cybercrimes. Given that the bulk of the population has limited awareness of cyber threats, a drive to educate the populace on safe cyberspace financial transactions is necessary.
Also, businesses must focus on improving security systems on their platforms to protect themselves and their customers.
With Africa’s digital economy is projected to grow into a 180 billion industry in the next few years, appreciating and working towards handling cybercrime is necessary. A critical review of cybersecurity laws and regulations is vital. Without which the rise of the digital space poses a significant threat to the continent.