According to Marius Haman, the digital crimes unit head for South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, the continent has an ironic relationship with the internet.
While Africa has two per cent of the world's internet population, the continent is suffering about 10 per cent of the world's incidents of cybercrime. This is five times more than the size of Africa's internet population.
This leaves corporates, governments and individuals at risk to not only cybercrime but also vulnerable to privacy infringements.
419 SCAMS AND PHISHING EXPEDITIONS
"We in Africa have a disproportionate slice of the cybercrime pie, and if we start thinking about why that is, it's not that difficult to fathom: as people have started moving to the internet world and started using internet services like search engines and emails, and increasingly ecommerce, cybercriminals from across the world are targeting the continent," Haman explained.
"Unfortunately, the awareness around this issue has not risen with access to the internet, and certainly legislative measures in various countries have not kept abreast of developments."
The fact that African countries do not have clear regulation regarding cybercrime and online security policy means that economies, personal information and people are left extremely vulnerable.
Fraudulent activity such as 419 scams, which originated in Nigeria, and phishing scams, which are gaining prominence in South Africa, are just two of myriad aspects of the sharp end of the digital technology sword.
A 2013 report by global antivirus software company Norton indicated that roughly 113 billion dollars has so far been lost globally to cybercrime, with consumer cybercrime being the most popular of online crimes.
"Criminals, if you look at it from their perspective, there's suddenly an expanded territory to reach victims, they can set up in any country in the world and they can reach us because we're vulnerable. We should also not forget that these are part of organised crime syndicates, and these [criminals] have got sophisticated measures to attack people locally," said Haman.
"They've got the means and they've got the technical knowhow. They've got an ever-revolving sort of delivering method to gain illegal access into people's PCs and gain access to personal information."
Microsoft South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is however partnering with the private sector, law enforcement and governments to build awareness on the building threat of personal information from an individual and state perspective.
"There certainly is a lot of work to be done in this regard. Microsoft is partnering with a lot of governments in a number of countries to start these discussions, and add an international perspective from a private sector perspective. There is quite a lot happening behind the scenes," said Haman.
THE SHRINKING ZONE OF PRIVACY
Apart from the threat of cybercrime, the power of the digital age has permeated into our private lives, and in some cases, has undermined individual privacy.
"Every time you click your mouse, you make a phone call, use a payment card, drive your car … there is potential surveillance there," said London Information commissioner Richard Thomas in 2007, in a England House of Commons and Home Affairs Committee report on surveillance and society.
"Our transactions are tracked, our interactions identified and our preferences profiled—all with the potential to build up an increasingly detailed and intrusive picture of how each of us lives our life."
There have been instances where governments have requested search engines such as Google and websites such as Facebook for a particular person's personal information. The request is driven by the suspicion of terrorism.
On the one hand, this could be seen as a measure of preventing potential terrorism, but on the other hand it indicates that anyone can be subject to investigation if such is requested by the state, overriding personal privacy laws and institutions.
Social network Facebook released its first Global Government Requests report for the first six months ended June 30, 2013, which indicated that over 60 countries around the world had submitted requests for the user and profile data of certain individuals.
Egypt, Botswana and South Africa were the only countries that represented the continent. Between the two regions, South Africa had submitted 14 requests, with information requests for nine users.
The Egyptian government had submitted eight requests, with the information of 11 users being asked for. Botswana made three requests, with information requests for seven users.
The United States had the highest number of requests, having made 11,000-12,000 requests for between 20,000 and 21,000 users. According to international news agency CNN, Facebook complied with 79 per cent of America’s requests.
Google, which launched its Transparency Report in 2010, reported that between January and June 2013, over 25,879 user data requests had been made to the search engine and YouTube by law enforcement agencies of countries around the world. Some user data requests can either be for user information or the removal of certain information from the internet.
“While the information we present in our Transparency Report is certainly not a comprehensive view of censorship online, it does demonstrate a worrying upward trend in the number of government requests, and underscores the importance of transparency around the processes governing such requests,” Google said in a statement in December 2013.
ONE STEP INTO PROGRESS
In South Africa, the National Cybersecurity policy framework has been adopted by cabinet in a bid to clamp down on the growing threat to both privacy and security online.
In February 2012, the Department of State Security took over from the Department of Communications in drawing up the government’s policy on cybercrime.
In addition to the setup of a cybersecurity advisory council, South Africa also plans to have a Computer Security Incident Response Team and the Computer Security Emergency Response Team.
Initiatives such as Alert Africa and the Information security Group of Africa have also been formed to fuel continental awareness of the double-edged sword aspect of digital technology.
Similarly, this year’s World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, shined a light on online security and surveillance in today’s society and the new face of Big Brother culture. Our risk to threat of privacy and security now hinges on how consumers to use the internet and other digital tools.
“Our view is that one should take a risk-based approach to this issue. You need to be able to identify what the risks you are exposing yourself to, whether you're a business or an individual. Identify what sort of interaction you are committing to on the internet," said Haman.
“The way that we at Microsoft approach it is very much a partnership between the private sector and public sector. Awareness and responsibility among consumers - we should not forget that consumers have a responsibility in this as well.”