It has been hailed as a transformative moment, one that will bring algorithmic precision to the decisions we make and automate virtually every aspect of our lives, from switching on the lights to predicting what food we want to eat.
But amid all the hype surrounding the fourth industrial revolution and its disruptive digital technologies, there is confusion – and potential danger. While tech is being rolled out at an exponential rate, infrastructural support and safeguards seem to be lagging behind, leaving the global south particularly exposed.
Not that you would know it. South Africa, which recently hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa, has made it clear it is pinning its hopes on the economic potential of the fourth industrial revolution. The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, told business leaders in Cape Town that the country stands ready to embrace the new age as a solution to pressing issues such as inequality and grinding unemployment, which currently affects a quarter of the working-age population.
Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritius and Kenya are also leading the charge, with state-of-the-art technology already being used to transact business, teach in schools and universities, and thwart terrorism.
But for all the allure of the World Economic Forum’s claim that the fourth industrial revolution could create 3 million more jobs across Africa by 2025, the dash to digitise comes with potential pitfalls –vulnerabilities that make the continent particularly exposed to data manipulation and cyber attacks, even before a fully automated revolution such as the internet of things and artificial intelligence become a daily reality.
These vulnerabilities have far-reaching consequences, not just for banks and industry in emerging economies, but also for personal privacy and issues of human security.
In July, a major electricity supplier in Johannesburg was hit by a ransomware attack, depriving millions of power, and last month a leaked UN security council report named South Africa among a number of countries targeted by North Korean hackers who infiltrated cryptocurrency exchanges.
By 2022 there are expected to be half a million new internet users in sub-Saharan Africa, joining 211 million already online. Many are connected via mobile phones. The technology has dramatically altered lives, granting access for rural farmworkers to new markets and saving lives through telemedicine.
Yet many countries in Africa, with comparatively weak institutions to protect the fundamentals of democracy, risk becoming a testing ground for the abuse of new tech and violations of privacy. When the Cambridge Analytica scandal became headline news, it emerged that the data of 60,000 South African internet users had been compromised. Kenya appeared to have been a laboratory for the company’s operations, an insider admitting that they ran “just about every element” of the 2013 and 2017 presidential campaigns.
With the proliferation of automated Twitter bots on tablets, laptops and phones, the opportunity to seize the narrative on everything from elections, land or xenophobic violence in South Africa seems endless.
Without building resilience to pre-empt such digital blindspots, the tech revolution risks undermining democracies, hijacking key infrastructure and – in a growing number of cases – provoking a real-world response to virtual threats. It is already happening elsewhere, as illustrated earlier this year when Israeli defence forces launched airstrikes against what they claim was a Hammas facility undertaking cyber attacks. Imagine if Kenya were to launch a similar military response to a suspected cyber threat from Somalia, or even Yemen? The geopolitical ramifications of this new age give one pause for thought.
Nor does the traditional non-aligned status of countries such as South Africa offer protection. It may not have any “obvious” enemies, but its technical infrastructure and status as a business hub makes it an attractive proxy for states or non-state actors.
Moreover, Africa is witnessing the emergence of cyber criminal gangs available for hire – globally. Renting their “knowhow” to extort ransoms or provide another tool in the armoury of terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. Islamic State, it has been extensively reported, is already honing its cyber skills. Senior figures from the National Prosecuting Authority in South Africa say they are aware of at least a dozen such criminal networks for hire within the country.
African states arguably need to equip themselves better to build cyber resilience and be part of the global drive to determine ways to police the global cybersphere more effectively, to mitigate the effects of data breaches on their own citizens. To date, less than half of all African states have dedicated computer emergency response teams. One of the biggest challenges is ensuring companies and governments are not deterred from sharing information about data breaches by fears of reputational risk. An estimated 570 suspected cyber attacks occur in South Africa every second. In a continent of 1.2 billion people, where hundreds of millions of citizens will come online in the next three years, the scale of future risk from abuses is clear.
Countries such as South Africa have enacted legislation to protect public privacy from data abuse with the Protection of Personal Information Act (2013), although for technical reasons it is unlikely to be enforced until 2022. The cybercrimes and cyber security bill, which imposes tougher sentences and provides for mutual legal assistance measures, still needs to be approved by parliament. While tech expands exponentially, human society appears to be lagging behind.
Internationally, Kenya, Mauritius and South Africa are represented in the UN’s Group of Government Experts on ICT issues, established to set up cyber “norms”, or agreed rules of state behaviour, to support international human rights law. At regional level, the African Union convention oncyber security and personal data protection has been ratified by only five of the 55 member states.
The transnational nature of the digital revolution has the potential to break down Africa’s arbitrary borders, which were haphazardly drawn during the colonial era, as well as the potential to diffuse power away from state governments to citizens. But it also makes it harder for those who misuse the technology to be held to account.
• Karen Allen is a former BBC Africa correspondent and currently consultant in emerging threats in Africa at the Institute for Security Studies