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Cyberspace: huge opportunities but serious threats

- By Wits University

Cyberspace presents huge opportunities but serious threats to both businesses and governments.

Global threats to cyberspace are rapidly increasing - at the same pace as the explosive growth in the use of the Internet. These constitute significant risks to individuals as well as organised business and governments, delegates attending a cyberspace security seminar held at Wits Business School heard on Monday evening. 
While highlighting the potential of cyberspace to promote social and economic growth, Dr Uri Rosenthal, a former Dutch foreign minister, said it would be folly to underestimate the harm that cyberspace criminals cause to companies and governments through hacking and similar forms of criminal activities. 
The seminar was convened by the Netherlands Embassy and the WitsBusiness School (WBS) on 26 Jnauary 2015. Dr Rosenthal is the special envoy for the Global Conference on Cyber Space, which holds its fourth annual conference on cyberspace from 15-16 April 2015 in the Netherlands.
Dr Rosenthal painted both a positive and negative picture of the internet. The positives were clear - economic and social development – but the negatives include cybercrimes and other threats to commercial or national security.
Professor Steve Bluen, Head of WBS, told delegates while technology accelerates economic and social growth, recent high profile cases have shown that companies can come under significant risk too.
“The entry into the digital age and the growth of disruptive technology has presented us with significant tension between security, regulation, freedom and growth,” said Dr Bluen.
Dr Rosenthal agreed, saying there were also threats to national security, and at an individual level, to their private lives as criminals are consistently devising ways of hacking into bank accounts and stealing personal information to commit fraud, he said.
The threat has increased particularly in the wake of the rapid growth in internet and smart phone usage across the world, he said. Current estimates show there are over 6 billion mobile phone users globally and growing, while in South Africa, 41% of the population has access to the internet. Mobile phone penetration in many countries was also high, with that in South Africa estimated at over 100% and in Ghana 130%. Smart phone penetration in South Africa was growing at enormous speed.
Internet access via fixed phone lines was also increasing, Dr Rosenthal said, citing Indonesia as an example of a country that is experiencing huge growth in internet usage via fixed lines. Currently, there were 70 million internet users in Indonesia and the government planned to double this in the next two years.
He said it was against that background that governments and the private sector should recognize and appreciate both the potential of harnessing opportunities offered by cyberspace, as well as the potential threats that could have devastating consequences on both economic and social life.
“Everyone who is connected to the internet can be (potentially) hacked. Cyber shocks are in the offing and that is a statement of fact,” said Dr Rosenthal. He identified three key themes that were shaping the debate on threats and opportunities of cyberspace: the speed within which internet transactions and communication takes place; the difficulty in pinpointing the person or persons behind hacking; and the level of public and private sector partnership to combat cyberspace crime, particularly the role of the private sector which already has an advanced internet infrastructure and the skills required to prevent crimes such as hacking.
Craig Rosewarne, Managing Director of Wolfpack Information Risk expressed concern that despite having “excellent policies” on cybercrime, they had not been implemented much “to the detriment of the people”. He said South Africans were greatly exposed and losing large amounts of money to cybercrime, yet no-one has been prosecuted and found guilty by the country’s courts. Kenneth Tendayi Chikwanha – Chair of Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), South Africa also said implementation of the legal instruments to combat cybercrime was essential, as was the need for government and private sector co-operation.
Pria Chetty, Regional Director and Co-Founder of Endcode – an organization that advises on technology law in Africa - said South Africa had made significant progress to combat cyberspace crime even though there was need for more collaboration between African governments which were facing similar problems related to cybercrime.