African Cyber WMD? Really?

I’m not happy. No, the bed at this hotel in Bamako was great last night, as well as the pool, and the breakfast. No complaints there and in fact, beyond the bus and transportation situation, I’ve been enjoying Mali a great deal. It’s this article written by Belgian journalist, Franz-Stefan Gady, about the looming threat of a “Cyber Weapon of Mass Destruction” as “Darkest Africa” gets online that has fouled my mood.

To be short, blunt, and honest, this article is bullshit. I’m a Croatian national and so I’ve been following the accession of Croatia in to the EU with a good deal of attention seeing that it could happen in January of next year. As this possibility gets closer, the xenophobic news gets greater as news articles focus on everything bad about Croatia (and let’s not even talk about Turkey’s possible accession–ooooh scary developed Muslim country…) People are scared of change and scared of outsiders, especially those writing for some sections of certain British journalism outfits. As has been the case historically, it’s much the same for Africa.

I mean, there are so many generalizations in this ridiculous article that I really don’t want to waste time addressing each one. It’s obvious that the author read some extremely general statistics of African internet penetration and computer usage to concoct this broad stroke, op-ed representation of a lurking, unseen threat from the “Heart of Darkness”. Honestly, it sounds a lot like the same things said about AIDS and Africa.

But, let’s just mention a few things. First of all, while there is a lot of old equipment looming around, there is also a lot of new equipment. The Africans I know aren’t stupid when it comes to electronics. They know what a good operating system is, what a good browser is, and especially what a good phone is. They upgrade things whenever possible. Sure, there are a number of internet cafes who have old, crap machines lying around, but this is also the case in a great wealth of cafes outside of Africa.

On another note, technology in Africa has the tendency to leapfrog the feeble, dragging steps that plague the “developed” nations. For instance, the Orange internet connections throughout all of Mali are via WiMax. “Huh, what’s WiMax?” many a DSL or cable internet user in North America would ask. It works great here and it bypasses the need for painstaking land connection deployment. I see it taking off in a great many African countries over time. It’s going to be 5 years or more before we see this deployed properly in the US. So, on that note, I think that Africans have more to fear from older technology outside their continent than the rest of the world fearing Africa. It would be ironic if at some point in the near future, Nigeria had to block IP addresses from the United States.

I think that the biggest and most glaring issue with this article is that if one is to assume that there are unpatched, susceptible machines in Africa, won’t access to faster internet allow them to download the patches needed to fix the issue? Won’t faster access to information allow people to find out more about the threats to their machines? Won’t faster access allow Africans to most likely undercut the inflated web development rates earned by those in places like Silicon Valley which means that scare tactics will need to be used in sloppy journalism pieces to keep them from being part of this economy. Oh, wait.

Overall just a bad article and something that should never had been published. If you want to talk about the real Cyber WMD, I see it on two fronts. The first is in Apple computers which, have lulled their users in to a false sense of security with their machines. Some day a virus will come along that will spread like wildfire when Macs are vulnerable to it. And this will happen. It’s just a matter of time. The other front is the smartphone. Dear lord, there is no security on them whatsoever and as they get more and more connected to the net, the threat index goes up exponentially. Gady (“HoansSolo“), instead of pointing fingers at a continent which I wonder if you’ve ever set foot upon, how about looking in your pocket instead…

6 Replies to “African Cyber WMD? Really?”

  1. Brilliant article Miquel!!
    I read the FP piece last night and was waiting for your take on it, since it seemed to me to make some wild generalisations, and the overall tone was something like “the coming anarchy goes online”!
    And on smartphones, you’re right – I even read about people having their iPhones “kidnapped” by hackers who demanded money for getting off their phones…
    On a different note, yesterday I talked on a Mallorca radio about Africaneando and Maneno – will let you know when it’s on!

  2. Yeah, it’s really doubly unfortunate given that a Belgian wrote the article given the history of that country with Africa. I have no idea what he was thinking in writing it other than whipping up ill-founded scare tactics.

    I think that some of those smartphones might be the “jailbroken” versions or worse yet, the iPhone copies that you can find in Abidjan and I so want to get. Obviously, you muck with the official releases and you get problems.

    And very cool about the interview. Please let us know when it comes about so that we can pimp you up on the Maneno Twitter!

  3. Kevin, glad you liked the post and I equally enjoyed yours, especially the analysis of the terrorist component of it. As I’m sitting here this evening working with a local fellow in Mali to get more African languages online and accessible, it’s amazing how much people miss the basic issues of literacy and electricity, which makes Gady’s article all the more ignorant for just about everything anyone the least bit knowledgeable about Africa knows.

  4. Miquel, thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this response to that lousy article.

    When I read Glady’s article it smacked of propaganda, xenophobia and downright stupidity.

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