Cyberattacks in West Africa spark debate over online security

A wave of cyberattacks aimed at government-related websites in Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal over the last two months has triggered a debate over how to bolster online security and deal with politically motivated hacking.

A popular Senegalese news site, Seneweb and the website of the government’s ICT management agency, L’Agence De l’Informatique de l’Etat (ADIE), were the first to be hacked in the latest round of attacks, in December and January, respectively (though the Seneweb hack was not disclosed until January).

The attacks were reportedly launched in response to Senegalese President Macky Sall’s participation in a rally in support of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Twelve people were killed on Jan. 7 by two heavily armed men at the Paris office of satirical news weekly Charlie Hebdo. The attack was reportedly prompted by satirical material involving Muslim themes and historical figures.

Ghana’s deputy minister of communications, Ato Sarpong, confirmed on Jan. 21 that the government portal, which hosts 58 websites for ministries, departments and agencies, was successfully attacked by a hacker known as Alsancak Tim, from Turkey. The hacker was able to infiltrate 11 of the websites. Ghana’s CERT said the site was vulnerable due to a failure to update software.

In Nigeria, the Director of Defense Information Chris Olukolade, confirmed that Defense Headquarters website had been compromised on Jan. 23 in “an ISIS style attempt to hack into government platforms.” The hacker claiming responsibility went under the name Imam Sadiq, who tweeted messages supporting Muslim radical groups Boko Haram and ISIS. Under the name Maniak K4sur, the hacker also allegedly was responsible for hacks on police sites in New Jersey and Indiana.

Some comments on social media throughout the region suggest that the affected governments should focus on the hackers’ messages, especially in cases where serious political grievances are being aired. Not everyone agrees.

“The messages from the hackers are important to help determine the magnitude of their operations,” said Emmanuel Greywoode, a lead Microsoft trainer in Ghana, via LinkedIn. “But what should be of priority is the actual act being done. The hacking of websites should not be seen as a normal practice as every organization is supposed to protect their data from wrongful use.”

Industry insiders are hoping that the attacks will make West African governments appreciate the worth of indigenous IT security experts.

The Ghana hack was “Interesting...but sad,” wrote Alfred Benett, an IT manager in Accra, in a comment on Ghana’s popular CitiFMonline news site. “Now, I am sure the country will put value on IT security experts. You don’t respect IT personnel. Now you have a reason to put value and worth on us.”

Governments across the continent need to put in place long-term plans to enhance cybersecurity, said Leslie Koroma, CEO of app developer Songhai Technologies.

“While the focus on preventing future hack attacks in the short term is nothing but stop gap measures and temporary fixes, governments across Africa should move urgently towards adopting national IT and cyber security strategies that focus more on training a new generation of law enforcement experts who will form the framework of national cyber defense strategies to prevent such attacks in the future,” wrote Koromo via LinkedIn.

The national strategies, he added, will also be of significant benefit in training the workforce of the future.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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