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How prepared are we against the risks of Cyber warfare?

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By Obadiah Mailafia

THE technological breakthroughs of our twenty-first century have opened up vast opportunities for untold wealth. But they have also unleashed new risks for individuals, firms and nations. To all intents and purposes, the wars of the future will not be fought with armoured tanks, bomber aircraft and heavy artillery; rather, they will be fought in cyberspace – on gleaming computer screens.

The American strategic think tank, The Rand Corporation, defines cyber warfare as “the actions by a nation state or international organisation to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks”.

Cyber warfare and cyber crime go together. In our day and age, the internet has become a weapon, according to one commentator, “for harmful, unethical, and illegal purposes”. Examples of such illicit purposes include incitement and recruitment by terrorists, spreading of extremist ideologies, brainwashing, cyber bullying, and ‘malicious fake news’. The alleged interference by Russian shadowy cyber warriors in the recent U.S. presidential elections is a case in point, although the Kremlin has vehemently denied that its subterranean influence ensured electoral victory for Donald Trump at the expense of the unfairly demonised Hillary Clinton. The controversy has certainly cast a pall of gloom over the legitimacy of the Trump administration.

Cyber Crime

In April this year, the so-called ‘Lazarus hackers’ originating from the rogue state of North Korea went on a spree of cyber attacks that affected banks and financial institutions in more than 18 countries. According to the Russian cyber security firm, Kapersky, the countries affected included Nigeria, Spain, Russia, China, Taiwan, Poland, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand Costa Rica Gabon and the Philippines. North Korea, which has come under UN sanctions because of its bellicose nuclear sabre-rattling, apparently hacks into banks to finance its nuclear ambitions. An unlucky Bangladeshi bank was said to have lost quite a fortune. Luckily for us, there is no evidence that our Nigerian banks lost money to the hackers in Pyongyang, but it’s clear that their databases were tempered with.

The latest wave of cyber warfare occurred last week; widely regarded as one of the worst in more than a decade, affecting over 130,000 systems in more than 100 countries. The hackers have been traced to Russia which is said to have raised a legion of highly skilled and well-paid hackers whose job is to wage propaganda war in favour of the Kremlin while undermining enemy computer systems. Russia has been under economic sanctions on account of its forcible acquisition of the Crimea from Ukraine. Russia has responded by raising an army of cyber warriors in its war of survival.

Among the worst affected in the recent scourge is the venerable British National Health Service, NHS. Databases have been compromised, with doctors resorting to handwritten medical reports while unable to access medical histories of their patients. Also affected are German rail network timetables, Spanish telecoms and gas distribution systems, American Federal Express, FEDEX, deliveries and Chinese schools, universities and research institutes.

The good news last weekend was that a 22-year old British IT expert of mixed African and English parentage accidentally stumbled upon an algorithm that enabled him to sink the virus in a cyber black hole in faraway California. He had apparently spotted a loophole in the code that meant he could block the virus wreaking its havoc. But the threat is far from over.

Cyber terrorism, according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, remains the number one threat to national security, ahead of Islamic terrorism and WMD. Hacking costs the American government US$300 billion annually. It has been reported that Facebook accounts experience some 600,000 hackings daily. There is talk these days of a Cyber Caliphate made up of extremist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram who avidly embrace cyber warfare as part of their arsenals of war. If truth be told, China, USA, Russia and other world powers are not averse to using cyber warfare when their vital national interests are at stake. Sadly, there is no effective global governance architecture to ensure an orderly system for the free and safe use of the global information highway.

In this chaotic universe, the question must be asked: How prepared are we in Nigeria to cope with these emerging risks?

Nigerian internet penetration is rising exponentially, together with some 100 million subscribers on mobile telephony. The youths who engaged in so-called “Yahoo Yahoo” activities a decade ago have matured into sophisticated cyber criminals. In March 2015, Nigerian banks declared that they had lost no less than a staggering N199 billion to electronic related fraud between 2000 and 2014. According to one expert, this was “mostly due to inappropriate and reckless management of customers… system hacking, e-mail bombing, diddling, viruses, spoofing and similar attacks…”

Our banks are at risk, as are institutions such as CBN, NNPC and NCC. We need therefore need a robust cyber security architecture that will ensure that our databases are protected against future enemy attacks. Through the good offices of the National Security Adviser, NSA, we need to train a new generation of security operatives who have full mastery of frontier knowledge in computer science and cyber security. The armed forces and the police, customs and immigration services should be retrained and equipped with cyber defence skills to protect our country and its treasures and assets.

Ultimately, cyber warfare should be mainstreamed into whole gamut of our national defence and security apparatus.

 

 

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