Saturday, May 15, 2021

DISS deems social media a national security threat

The prophecy by some Pentecostal church pastors about Botswana catching fire in the aftermath of the 2019 general election may have been wide of the mark but analysis by the Directorate of the Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) does indeed tie electoral politics to looming national security threat.“Most incidents involving use of social media that threatens political stability were mostly observed in the 2019 general election campaign season,” says Edward Robert, DISS’s Public Relations Director.He adds that features of such irresponsible usage observed include the proliferation of fake news, deliberate propagation and broadcast of misinformation particularly through Facebook and WhatsApp for notably calculated political ends.“

Some of these activities were observed to have the potential to cause widespread public panic. Traces of such continue to be observed post-election period.”  In the wake of social media almost precipitating a coup in the United States and such eventuality happening at the behest of a president (Donald Trump) who is a Twitter insurrectionist, Sunday Standard had sought to find out from DISS, how irresponsible use of social media platforms in Botswana poses a threat to national security. Botswana is in a particularly precarious position because according to Nielsen, a premier United States global information and measurement company, the country has the highest rates of Internet access in Sub-Saharan Africa, beating Nigeria and Kenya.

This apparent plus is also a minus in terms of national security. There is odious but ultimately harmless fooling around on the net – as when a bored Water Utilities Corporation employee in Maun digitally stripped an image of President Ian Khama to a stitch of abbreviated underwear called “mankini.” But there is also nefarious use of social media – as when a Botswana Democratic Party activist, Tiro Mekgwe, suggested on a party-aligned WhatsApp group that all journalists who report on corruption by BDP members should be killed. When found out, Mekgwe would make the impossible claim that he was only “joking.”

However, never once did he explain which part of expressing murderous intent has a punchline in it. The mankini incident, which happened when Khama was still president, revealed something unusually interesting – the inadequacy of Botswana’s cyber laws. Six months after the photoshopped picture was published, no charge had been laid against the culprit and the police said that they were still investigating. As it later turned out, the photoshopper had committed no crime. For what it is worth, this particular incident influenced the decision to tighten up Botswana laws.

“The advent of technology and increase in the use of cell phones and computers has had a negative impact in some areas whereby technology applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been used to abuse others, which necessitated the need to review legislation,” said Khama at a state-of-the-nation address that followed the incident. “In this regard, we will be bringing to Parliament a new Cyber and Computer Related Crimes Bill with a view of, among other things, enabling the victims of such crimes to seek redress.”

Robert deems the resulting Cyber Crime and Computer Related Act (as well as libel laws) to be effective when pursued by security organs and persons who are targeted in social media abuses.

“However, complications resulting from the use and misuse of social media continue to pose new and evolving challenges for which laws may not always be adequate,” he says. “This makes social media a very important platform to study for threats to national security and the Directorate continues to advise government where necessary.”

Economic security is an aspect of national security and as Robert states, the threat from social media is also significant enough to cause harm to the national economy. Indeed, this is a global phenomenon and in the country where this technology originates, a false report about a terrorist attack at the White House in which former President Barack Obama was injured, caused markets to tumble. In Botswana’s case, the example that Robert mentions is of “external adversarial actors” who targeted the country’s tourism over elephant and rhino poaching as well the death of elephants in the North West District earlier this year.

“In fact, adverse campaigns and misinformation through the media was extended to Botswana’s diamonds, with protests seeking to popularise false information staged as far as the United Kingdom and US,” he says.

For all the threats it poses, social media is, ironically, also useful to intelligence agencies like DISS, which routinely distill publicly available information into intelligence what is called open-source intelligence (OSINT) in this trade. Social media has become an important OSINT tool and to that end, Robert notes that “it is unavoidable that it will be of interest to the Directorate. Across the world, security organs continue to grow interest on the implications of social media to national security.

”Away from social media but within the same precinct of cyber crime is hacking, which is getting more sophisticated as hackers organize themselves into veritable armies capable of launching all-out assaults on organisations and countries. To the question of whether there is there any indication at all that Botswana has organised computer hacker groups as is the case in some countries, Robert says that cyber security is a moving target and that every country is always susceptible to organised crime.“So, while such risks may appear low presently, organized criminal cyber activities may emerge unexpectedly, particularly as Botswana’s cyber security infrastructure shows vulnerabilities from time to time as previously acknowledged by the Director General (Rtd) Brigadier Peter Magosi.

”The acknowledgement in question was made to a parliamentary committee last year.“The entire system in Botswana is vulnerable,” Magosi told the Public Accounts Committee. “If anybody decides to hit DISS, DISS will go dark. If anybody hits the Botswana Defence Force, the same will happen, so is the Ministry of Transport and Communications and even the Independent Electoral Commission and we will be doomed.”

That is just half of the bad news – the other is that there is still no centralised point where national cyber security is coordinated. That was revealed in August 2017 when then Kanye South MP, Abram Kesupile, asked then Minister of Justice, Defence and Security, Shaw Kgathi, about incidences of cyber-attack/crimes reported in the country and the source of such attacks. Kesupile directed the question to this particular minister because from a common-sense perspective, cyber security is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, Defence and Security. However, Kgathi re-directed the question to then Minister of Transport and Communications, Kitso Mokaila, who, in his response, stated that “We do not have a centralised point where we coordinate this.”

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