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The coronavirus has brought economic devastation to all parts of the world. As a journalist based in the United States, I understandably tend to focus on the United States. But it’s easy to become so focused on one’s home country that you can forget the whole world is feeling the impact of COVID-19.

South Africa has long had a robust economy with some of the best cybersecurity and networking on the continent. Yet, while the cybersecurity work being done in South Africa is some of the best anywhere, the national investment in it is low. As such, I thought South Africa would be an interesting case study in how the pandemic has shaken up cybersecurity.

Like New York City and Los Angeles and, for that matter, London and Paris, office buildings in Johannesburg and Pretoria pretty much emptied out when it became clear how deadly and contagious COVID-19 was. For all of South Africa’s cybersecurity expertise, the country was, by all accounts, behind the curve on remote work. One South African newspaper reported this, rather presciently, in 2018:

Sharron McPherson, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, was quoted as saying that globally the number of remote workers grew 173 percent between 2003 and 2019. She noted at the time that South Africa is around four or five years behind the curve, but predicted a big spike over the next two years.

That spike came when the coronavirus arrived and in the beginning, cybercriminals had the upper hand. This is according to Professor Basie von Solms, Director of the Centre for Cyber Security Academy for Computer Science and Software Engineering University of Johannesburg, and one of South Africa’s leading cybersecurity experts.

“Clearly a big risk here is that many of the people working remotely have not done so before and do not have a lot of background and knowledge about cyberattacks. The criminals, on the other hand, are fully aware of this and are exploiting the situation,” Basie told Smarter MSP.

New report

The latest report from ACCENTURE, Basie says, reported that South Africa has the third highest number of cyber attacks in the world, and that users are naïve not to realize the relevant risks.

The report surmises the reasons South Africa is an attractive target:

Threat actors may perceive South African organizations as potentially having lower defensive barriers than those in more developed economies. They may also think they face a lower chance of incurring consequences for their malicious activity. That’s because there is low investment in cybersecurity and developing cybercrime legislation in South Africa. Threat actors are taking notice.

The African continent as a whole has a severe lack of cybersecurity specialists policing the pandemic. There are only about 10,000 certified cybersecurity technicians working on the entire continent.

So, Basie, points to the biggest cybersecurity risk the pandemic has posed to South Africa as being the exploitation of the general (fast and unplanned) move to remote work, something the country wasn’t prepared for.

“With many people (specifically the elderly) now being forced to move to online banking, for example, and because they have little experience with this, criminals will target them,” Basie adds.

South Africa is attempting to move swiftly into having businesses and the population, in general, adapt to a remote environment by rolling out a national cybersecurity awareness project.

“More people and companies will continue allowing online working on a more permanent basis because it seems to be working successfully. This will increase the attack platform for criminals and probably increase the number of cyber attacks on the country,” Basie advises. The government’s efforts will be key to prevention and reducing risk.”

Increased cyber attacks can be mitigated in South Africa if the government quickly rolls out its national Cyber Security Awareness project using TV, radio and more to improve the cybersecurity awareness.

The world can learn from South Africa

Winston Hayden is an independent cybersecurity expert based in Cape Town, home of numerous thriving businesses and an economic hub of the country. Hayden tells Smarter MSP that the challenges South Africans are experiencing isn’t much different than those faced elsewhere.

The main threats are the use of home Wi-Fi networks for conducting business, since end users don’t have the same protections that MSPs or CISOs would install on a corporate network.

“Home devices are unfortunately not managed and controlled as well as corporate network devices are and therefore, are more susceptible to cyber threats,” Hayden says.

Hayden adds the pandemic will cause a reprioritization of cybersecurity needs for South African businesses.

“All organizations will re-prioritize their cybersecurity strategies and programs to include security solutions for work from home (WFH). This will include cloud security solutions and Remote Device Management solutions,” Hayden advises.

The trend towards remote work in South Africa will continue, Hayden believes. Despite the cybersecurity challenges, work-from-home has created other benefits that may offset the increased risks.

“Companies have noticed the advantages and disadvantages of remote working. In some instances, staff has been a lot more productive – putting in more hours, for example now they don’t have to endure a couple of hours a day in commuting to and from work,” Hayden says. “Further, they have not had the disruptions that one typically experiences in an office environment, including lengthy lunches or coffee breaks.”

“Only time will tell if these new ways of working are sustainable,” Hayden adds.

When it comes to cybersecurity in South Africa, Hayden tells us that, like elsewhere, there has been an emergence of COVID-19 themed malicious apps, phishing campaigns, and malware.

“Just like the rest of the world, South Africa has noticed an increase in Malware, Powershell malicious activity and RDP attacks,” he states.

Just like COVID-19 doesn’t recognize boundaries, clearly, cybercriminals don’t either.

Photo: michaeljung / Shutterstock

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Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

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