Pandemic exposes Africa to cyber threats

An upsurge in cyber attack incidents over the pandemic period has been evident in Africa, with various reports indicating that these attacks are increasingly becoming more dynamic and difficult to predict.

 A report by cloud services provider Liquid Telecom shows that as cyber attacks mount, the top business concerns have been around  the loss of confidential company or personal information. And it has also emerged that among the major cyber threats for African corporates have been phishing  and malware. 

“Remote worker security and ransomware have been serious threats for South African businesses. In Kenya, the major security threat to a business is password compromise andaccess to information stored in the cloud,” it states. 

Just over half of the businesses surveyed have experienced online security threats during the pandemic, with 46 percent in South Africa and 75 percent in Kenya Online security firm Kaspersky has identified 28 million malware attacks in 2020 and 102 million detections of potentially unwanted programs such as pornware and adware, from January to  August 2020, in Africa. 

The numbers indicate that it’s not only the malware that attack online users but also the “grey zone” programs that grow in popularity and disturb their experiences, while users might not even know it is there.

Potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) are programs that are usually not considered to be malicious by themselves but are generally influencing user experience in a negative way.

For instance, adware fills user device with ads or aggressive monetising software propagating unrequested paid offers. 

While calculating interim results of threat landscape activity in African countries, the researchers noticed that PUAs attack users almost four times more often than traditional malware.

They also eventually reach more users: for instance, while in South Africa, the malware would attack 415,000 users in 7-months of 2020, the figure for PUA would be 736,000. Evaluating results over the same 7-month period in Nigeria, there were 3,8 million malware attacks and 16,8 million PUA detections – which is four times as much.

Kenyan and South African threat landscapes have been more intense. In South Africa, there were almost 10 million malware attacks and a staggering 43 million PUA detections. Kenyan users faced even more malware attacks – around 14 million, and 41 million PUA appearances. 

“The reason why ‘grey zone’ software is growing in popularity is that it is harder to notice at first and that if the program is detected, its creators won’t be considered to be cybercriminals. The problem with them is that users are not always aware they consented to the installation of such programs on their device and that in some cases, such programs are exploited or used as a disguise for malware downloads,” Denis Parinov, a security researcher at Kaspersky told Digital Business. 

Another report by cyber security firm Secure –D reveals that mobile malware and airtime theft are now much more common in Africa during the pandemic. The one-year study indicates that nearly 1.7 million mobile subscribers are infected with malware in South Africa alone. 

“Once activated, mobile malware forms part of a botnet, a network of infected devices controlled remotely at scale by a ‘bot-herder’,” it says. It has become increasingly common for smartphone malware to drive bogus traffic through banner ads, with fraudsters going ahead to claim pay-outs for the traffic. “This mobile advertising fraud market is worth more than Sh4 trillion annually,” says Secure-D’s managing director Geoffrey Cleaves. 

Among the most common apps doing this are SHAREit, a transfer app for online videos, and a video editor called VivaVideo. “Fully 86 percent of mobile transactions processed in South Africa in 2019 were fraudulent,” says Secure-D.

It found 24,000 malicious apps infecting more than two million mobile devices in the first eight months of 2020. Key findings highlighted by the Interpol assessment of the cybercrime landscape in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa has ranked phishing as the top threat to businesses. 

However, the 2020 Security Culture Report released by KnowBe4 and CLTRe collected data from South Africa, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe shows that Africa is more secure than Europe. 

“Asia has the highest security culture score. The continent of Africa is on par with North America, Australia and New Zealand at 73 and leading ahead of Europe which stands at 69,” says Anna Collard, Senior Vice President of KnowBe4 Africa. 

A higher score could be because Africa has leapfrogged legacy issues that plague some of the security environments in Europe.  

However, according to cyber security ranking firm Comparitech, the least secure nations in the world still come from Africa with Algeria leading in the exposure to threats. 

Following the North African nation are Tanzania, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco, South Africa and Kenya which appear in the top 50 most vulnerable countries for 76 nations in the world whose data is available for research. Nairobi-based cyber security expert Diana Waithanji says African countries will need to move fast and enact laws to protect netizens. 

“On top of implementing data security laws such as the 2019 Kenya Data Protection Law, African governments must create awareness to make cyber security relatable to their lives and businesses,” she remarks. 

Ms Waithanji warns against companies and government agencies that commit little budgets towards securing their business environments.

 “Every organization must have an information security strategy. It should be ready to invest in cyber security because it’s much cheaper to be proactive than reactive. They should also prepare a business impact analysis and a business continuity plan so that processes do not stop after an attack,” she explains.