Thursday, October 28, 2021

MP doubts Botswana’s ability to deal with cybersecurity threats

As it spends billions of pula on fighter jets to enhance its military preparedness, Botswana may be leaving one flank wide open.

“I don’t think that we have adequate cybersecurity capabilities,” says Gabane-Mankgodi MP Pius Mokgware who held the rank of major general at the time he retired from the army and has taught security studies at the University of Botswana.

With its aggressive acquisition of military hardware, Botswana has evidently conceived its defence plan around a conventional warfare. However, as a 2016 incident shows, wars of the future will be more digital than conventional. Ahead of the 2016 general election in the United States, Russia is alleged to have breached the security of the computer network at the headquarters of the Democratic Party, in the process acquiring confidential information that compromised the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In response, then President Barack Obama retaliated by planting “cyber bombs” in the network of the Russian government. If the conflict escalated, the US could, at the press of a computer button, detonate these bombs and, as just one example, cut off power supply in the national grid and interrupt surgeries in hospitals.

With his background, Mokgware knows more about security than most people. The first problem he identifies with Botswana’s cybersecurity is that the country doesn’t have “well-trained” IT experts. Indeed, a report produced by the Botswana Training Authority (which has been renamed the Botswana Qualifications Authority) identifies a “skills gap” in the IT sector. To get around this problem, Botswana has had to recruit foreign experts which, as Mokgware notes, is not ideal from a cybersecurity standpoint. The second problem relates to the high rate of staff turnover in the sector which makes it almost impossible to develop institutional capacity. The third problem is that the different agencies in Botswana’s security sector are not marching in lockstep. In one respect, this means that they are not cooperating on issues of cybersecurity.

“This situation necessarily means that we don’t have a credible cybersecurity system that can repel enemy attack,” Mokgware says.

In an ideal situation, parliament should be able to make appropriate intervention but the long-running dormancy of its committee on intelligence services meaning that such ability has been dangerously impaired. Mokgware is himself a member of that committee which has not met in more than two years.

The tragic irony of Botswana’s plan to acquire fighter jets is that such jets are supported by an on-ground computer network. In 2009, French fighter jets were unable to take off after military computers were infected by a computer virus. The virus made it impossible for the jets to download flight plans.

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