Cybersecurity key to protecting peacekeeping and disaster responders

Participants at the opening ceremony of Africa Endeavor 2017, an annual meeting to develop standardized, multinational communications practices for peacekeeping and disaster response missions mandated by the African Union and the United Nations. Photo by: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Dominique Shelton / CC BY

NAIROBI — In complex peacekeeping and relief missions across the African continent, sensitive information is constantly flowing between responders. If this information falls into the wrong hands, it could jeopardize personnel or leave vulnerable populations without life-saving supplies.

With so much at stake, cybersecurity is increasingly under the spotlight for NGOs, aid agencies, governments and militaries. They are crafting new strategies, including national government plans, to safeguard information such as routes for humanitarian access or the location of military operations. The issue has also drawn the attention of U.S. Africa Command, which hosted an annual capacity-building meeting last week in Malawi where cybersecurity was one of the main focuses.

Ensuring that information is not stolen or manipulated is particularly crucial to ensure the protection of individuals working in the humanitarian sector, Maj. Gen. Paul Phiri, inspector general of the Malawi Defense Force, told Devex by phone.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, for example, has been the target of multiple ambushes in recent years. There is growing concern among stakeholders that attacks like these could be made possible by vulnerable cybersystems, Col. Christopher Eubank, director of communications of U.S. Africa Command, told Devex.

Quick access to information is fundamental to such missions’ success, and data is increasingly shared through smartphones, computers and cameras, among other technologies, Eubank said. The interconnectedness of these technologies make them vulnerable to cyberattack.

National frameworks

The U.S. AFRICOM meeting encouraged African countries to develop comprehensive national cybersecurity policies. Representatives from over 40 African countries, along with those from the United Nations, African Union, Southern African Development Community, Economic Community of Central African States, and the European Union, were a part of discussions.

African countries are taking guidance from other countries, including the U.S., Germany, Brazil and Malaysia, as they craft their policies, said Eubank. The U.N. and the AU Commission are also building their own policies, and public-private partnerships are also helping to aid these developments. In Botswana, for instance, the government is working with Carnegie Mellon University and the MITRE Corporation on their cyber strategy.

Eubank said the key to an effective national policy is to identify the most vital assets you need to protect. This includes identifying critical infrastructure, such as water and power, and vital information infrastructure, looking at the technology behind where information is held.

“These are all things you have to identify, so as a country, you understand what is important so that you actually know what you should be looking at to defend,” he said.  

In its Global Cybersecurity Index released in July, the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N.’s telecommunications agency, found that about 38 percent of all countries globally have published cybersecurity strategy and 12 percent of governments are in the process of developing one.

Mauritius is leading the way in Africa. Ranked first on the continent by the index, and sixth globally, the nation has a Botnet Tracking and Detection project that allows the Computer Emergency Response Team of Mauritius to take measures to curb threats across the country proactively. The government also has an IT Security Unit that hosts awareness sessions for its government ministries and departments.

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About the author

  • Headshot sarajerving

    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.