Are Computers in Africa Really Weapons of Mass Destruction?

from the black-hats-on-the-dark-continent? dept

In recent months, a number of folks have argued that the arrival of high-speed bandwidth in Africa represents not an opportunity for economic growth, but a dangerous threat to the world. According to these Western pundits who are, incidentally, often promoting their cybersecurity services, computers and connectivity in Africa either pave the way for terrorists to unleash cyber-attacks or for botnet operators to gather millions of unprotected machines into their control. Although we’ve spent considerable time debunking the hysteria around cyberwar, this new version of the meme is even more unfounded.

Worrying that Africa is going to start producing top-notch hackers in any great quantity seems pretty absurd, when we’re talking about a continent where basic literacy, not to mention programming prowess, is a challenge. When Franz-Stefan writes in one of the articles above, that “skillful cybercriminals operating out of an unregulated Internet cafe in the slums of Addis Ababa, Lagos, or Maputo” will create the world’s biggest botnets, he shows that he has little understanding of those “slums.” For starters, electricity is intermittent enough to make cyberwar a sputtering failure. Secondly, although there are pockets of terrorists on the continent, by and large, elsewhere terrorists have access to far better finances and bandwidth than their comrades in Mogadishu. The fact that those terrorists haven’t used the Internet for these types of attacks with any regularity suggests that they place far more faith in tried-and-true methods of terrorizing, and there is every reason to believe that those in Africa will be the same.

Finally, as Miquel Hudin points out, it is ridiculous (and very likely offensive) to think that Africans are any more likely to keep their PCs insecure than anyone else. An American or European who points to Africa as the source of infected botnet computers is wildly hypocritical considering the enormous number of insecure computers that wealthy, educated Westerners have in their homes and offices. It seems quite unlikely that African computers are any more insecure than elsewhere.

Frantic articles painting Africa as just another threat, especially with regard to a great opportunity for the continent – connectivity – are reckless and miss both on-the-ground context and level-headed responses to the challenges of the continent.

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Comments on “Are Computers in Africa Really Weapons of Mass Destruction?”

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34 Comments
vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If the Africans are really pressed for cash, they might use alternative OSs on their computers rather than what the rich, spoiled Windows users in developed countries use”

That would depend how many free copies Microsoft give to entice the schools into teaching ‘the Microsoft way’. Schools are pretty frugal even in developed countries yet seem to be determined to teach only on Microsoft products.

NullOp says:

More dangerous...

The most dangerous tool of mass destruction is the human mind. Africa has an overwhelming poverty level. The basic want for a better life can be the impetus for some people to follow a charismatic leader such as Hitler or Obama. Will PC’s and the net in Africa play into terrorism over the next decade. Yes. To what degree, however, can not be accurately predicted.

Guy says:

Re: More dangerous...

Will there be individuals in Africa that use new technology for illegal activity? Yes. It’s occurring in developed countries already, so much so that’s it’s created an entire new industry just for securing data and countering hackers. So it seems logical to assume that if nations like America, China, and India can produce hackers with access to PCs, Africa will experience something similar.

But developed nations already recognize that the benefits that come from computers outweigh the risk that come from internet security hazards. No one suggests disconnecting America to secure it’s data from it’s own endemic hacking, it seems absurd to try to use that argument to keep Africa from connecting to the rest of the world. Leave the scarecrows at the door please.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

What's the definition of WMD?

If Africa is getting highspeed internet everywhere, our spam filters will sure get a workout…

Avery starving little Nigerian will suddenly have a rich father that fled the country to avoid something, and they need you to give them money to get the information to collect their millions of dollars….

No offense, if we just cut the wires to Africa for the internet and left it all to it’s self all of our email spam boxes would be so much better for it.

www-addict says:

WMD = Windows

Windows is a WMD. Hopefully the rich over-induldged westerners will someday “get it” and stop using Windows. Using Windows is like leaving the front door of your house open with the key in the lock… Oh yea.. if your using Windows, I guess you should go ahead and leave you wallet and Cash and credit cards on the sidewalk in front of your house.. ooops sorry I almost forgot, if you using Windows, everyone prolly already has that stuff that “belonged”” to you. Computers in Africa…. Awesome…Maybe we should also send some industry and birth control. If your sending stuff somewhere how about sending some CFS (Common F$%&#$* Sense) to the USA!

suezz says:

this is probably microsoft’s way of getting the wto and the use government involved so they can force their os on the african people.

they can’t let a new market go to linux so when people can afford their os you make the government force it on them cause it is for their own good. come on people let microsoft and the government decide what computer you use.

Michael (profile) says:

I knew it!

There is going to be a huge network of OLPC’s that eventually becomes the most destructive weapon of terrorism in history!

Terrorists usually like the visceral image of bodies on the news. Until they manage to come up with a way to electrocute people through their keyboards via Skype, I think they will spend their precious resources on more conventional weapons than computers.

Of course, planning their attacks on MI5 offices by finding them on google maps may still be in the works…

Kevin Donovan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And you need to learn to read a little more closely.

First of all, Masnick isn’t the author.

Second of all, being online, even for a few moments a day, is insufficient if you lack the computer skills to harness a botnet.

Finally, if the botnet herder were to be from somewhere besides Africa (a more likely scenario), they’ll have trouble using computers in “slums” in their botnet because those computers will be unreliable.

BP says:

RE: Are Computers in Africa Really Weapons of Mass Destruction?

We used to think this about China, India and Japan too. Remember when Japan only made cheap knockoffs for electronics? Remember when GM and Ford ruled and other cars from Asian countries (and most European cars as well) were chintzy little things?

Africa isn’t close today, but what about tomorrow? The arrogant attitude of “they aren’t capable” sure hasn’t worked so far. I’m not saying that Africa is ever going to be a world threat, but assuming they’ll never be one or that they aren’t and will never be capable is folly.

Kevin Donovan (profile) says:

Re: RE: Are Computers in Africa Really Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Fair enough. In the original version of this I noted that forecasting possible downsides of ICTs is a fine exercise: http://blurringborders.com/2010/03/25/are-computers-in-africa-really-weapons-of-mass-destruction/

We just need to do so in a way that is conscious of the situations on-the-ground, and the two pieces to which I wrote in response do not do so.

Alatar says:

Before saying "blah blah Africa insecure computers"

Please remind me the market share for these insecure software in our allegedly “better” Western world :
– Internet explorer 6? Any IE ? (tip : most of them don’t know what a browser is and will answer “oh, I use Google”).
– Old and unpatched versions of MS Office?
– MS windows. Bonus challenge : find out in your surroundings about somebody who knows what Windows Update is.
– How many “superior Westerners” know what an antivirus is? A Firewall? Have got both, up to date and with a licence still running (not that 1-year Norton licence they got 4 years ago when they bought their machines).

The list could go on…
Here in France, in our days, computers are little more than “the thing you turn on and use in order to connect to Facebook or MSN” (that’s how Frogs call WLM). The hacker generation seems far behind.

So will give Africa some PCs really mess things up more than they are today?

Neil Schwartzman (user link) says:

To say Africa is more or less vulnerable than anywhere else is racist is inane. One need only take a look at the open relay problem in South Korean schools that was one of the largest transportation channels for spam at the beginning of the decade to understand that broadband + computers – highly skilled network and anti-abuse administrators = spam.

I agree there won’t be the nexus of evil geniuses like in eastern Europe, with unemployed and highly-educated programmers, but rapid-fire deployment in Africa will mean widespread botnet infection.

Anonymous Coward says:

“terrorists to unleash cyber-attacks or for botnet operators to gather millions of unprotected machines into their control.”

and I remember there used to be laws against taking laptops that had above a certain amount of processing power to other countries under the pretext that they could be used to somehow calculate nuclear formulas and help these countries make nuclear weapons. There used to even be entire discussions on this. I can’t find any reference to it now and I realize it’s a bunch of nonsense, but I do remember something about that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Here, I finally found something that looks similar.

http://www.partnershipforglobalsecurity.org/Documents/ns97128t.pdf

http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/gao/nsi96245.htm

http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/gao/nsi97128.htm

http://www.softwar.net/gao250.html

http://www.papillonsartpalace.com/clinEton.htm

Even less related

http://cio.energy.gov/high-performance-computing.htm

http://www.homelandsecuritynews.info/2010/02/red-storm-rising-new-national-security-high-performance-computing-center-launched/

But anyways, I remember at one time there was this whole scare trying to restrict the exportation of “powerful” laptops to certain countries under the pretext that they can somehow be used to build nuclear weapons.

Louis says:

Stupid topic really

Computers have been in Africa for years and years. I’m from Africa and my family bought a PC in the 80s just like many Americans and Europeans. This view point just shows a ignorance about Africa.

Broadband has also been in Africa for years.

Neither of these are as widespread (or as fast) as in developed worlds but they are there.

Actually lots of African people are skipping PCs and going straight to mobile solutions as these are way more practical.

Anonymous Coward says:

Will there be individuals in Africa that use new technology for illegal activity? Yes. It’s occurring in developed countries already, so much so that’s it’s created an entire new industry just for securing data and countering hackers. So it seems logical to assume that if nations like America, China, and India can produce hackers with access to PCs, Africa will experience something similar.

But developed nations already recognize that the benefits that come from computers outweigh the risk that come from internet security hazards. No one suggests disconnecting America to secure it’s data from it’s own endemic hacking, it seems absurd to try to use that argument to keep Africa from connecting to the rest of the world. Leave the scarecrows at the door please.

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