Nigeria will be fifty years old in few months. Since the time of our independence, the world has been redesigned as a result of technological advancements. We have fought wars, both at home and abroad and our soldiers have made sacrifices. Nigeria remains a republic despite constant agitations for segregations from most of the entities that make up Nigeria.
We are used to the crises of machetes and bullets. Unfortunately, the future threats to the peace and prosperity of Nigeria will not come from either. There is a new war evolving in the world. It is not fought on the land, sea, air or even in the physical space. It is war of the fifth domain: the cyberspace. Yes, warfare perpetrated through clusters of computer networks which have linked the world in mutually dependent interrelationships of people, firms and nations.
Cyberwar is not a war of choice. It will come to you even if you do not want it. Just as computer virus attacks our computers, this warfare is waged at national level with consequences that can shut down a military control, financial systems, health informatics, and telecommunication networks. It is something that the nation cannot afford to waste time to develop a coherent strategy for.
Though we have failed to use technology or strong regulation to solve the embarrassment caused by the Nigerian web fraudsters, in this particular case, failure is not an option.
The world has nuclear non- proliferation treaty, but none exists for cyberwar despite the potential economic dangers the latter poses to world commerce. Accordingly, many nations have started to deploy strategic commands to protect, defend and necessarily retaliate when their systems are attacked through cyber-means. The United States Pentagon has the Cyber Command inside the National Security Agency, the British has a similar unit inside the GCHQ. China, Iran, Russia, Israel, and many other nations have developed cyber-army to protect their economies.
What is basically the threat of cyberwar? It has been proven that people could remotely rewire networks logically and trigger avalanche of problems that can bring a nation’s economy to standstill. They plant logic bombs which on ‘explosion’ brings enormous damages to companies and private citizens. They could penetrate our oil installations, bank servers, electric grids, air-traffic controls, GSM networks, and military commands. We suddenly find out that nothing works in the land and all networks are broken.
This is perhaps the most drawbacks of computer networks- the ability to wage war through bits and bytes instead of the old fashioned way of firing bullets where the identities of the invaders are known. In cyberwar, the attackers could mask themselves and may even use your rigged networks to attack you. It is also important to understand that the world ‘computer’ has since evolved. There are pills, watches, shoes, bags, cellphones that are indeed computers. And most systems are on networks with IPs assigned to them.
Recently, our Information Minister, Prof Dora Akunyili, in a speech in Amsterdam explained Nigeria’s readiness on ICT through expansion of our fiber-optic networks and satellites. What are the efforts the government is putting in place to secure these networks from cyberwar? It is about the weakest link and nations like US, UK and Canada could be worried that Africa will become the easiest spot to launch attacks because our systems are not protected well enough.
In the old warfare, people were trained to become spies or soldiers with enormous risks. But now, all they have to do is use a computer to launch their strikes to vulnerable nations. If we deny the severity of these threats, we will have ourselves to blame. It used to be copies of military notes; now, the digital spies could download an entire library of military strategy.
Arguably, many will argue that Nigeria does not have many digital assets to be overly cautious. I disagree; the threat is not just on digital assets, but all aspects of the economy. Foreign contractors can rig our networks and understand what other nations are bidding on national contracts, especially military ones. They can access our military roadmap and infiltrate to stay ahead of our strategies.
Let us take a scenario where Nigeria military goes into a meeting to discuss contracts with China. A Chinese engineer hands over an infected file to our generals; through that file they can keep tap of all the future developments on that project. Even a common sharing of the same network during that meeting can expose our military to unprecedented danger. If they rig into that network by us giving them access, they can penetrate and have all the information they need about that project.
Take another scenario. You import those microchips from China and they have them designed to gather intelligence for them. This is why it is very important that Nigeria develops its capability because the future wars will be fought differently. We need to become aware of these risks and develop mitigation strategies.
Recently, the Chinese built the world’s second fastest supercomputer, primary to avoid the use of IBM machines for military research. They remain suspicious that using a machine from another country is a violation of national security code. When will Nigeria understand that our continuous lack of progress on emerging technology will digitally enslaved us for decades? How can our government understand that our lack of efforts on nanotechnology, biotechnology and microelectronics could potential destroy the foundation of our young democracy?
The cyberwar is real and it is already taking place in the world. The first Web War 1 was fought in Estonia where series of orchestrated attacks on Estonian digital infrastructure forced the government to decouple the nation from Internet. In other words, both government and business websites were brought down. That was followed in Georgia during its brief hostility with Russia. Again, its websites were brought down and even the President website had to be moved to a secure server in the United States.
This brings the major question. How will Nigeria function if another country launches a web war on our nation? One will hope that our military has already developed a strategy since I guess most of these activities are classified. But if we do not have a plan, this is the time to develop a cyber security and warfare roadmap that will ensure that our national prosperity is secured.
It is important to understand that this is not an ICT problem. This is a serious engineering problem that goes beyond the digital bits to the transistors that power the microchips upon which the ICT depends. Nothing is safe; a light bulb in the Presidency can be a listening device, and that Flash USB key our soldiers use on their laptops while connected to our military networks could be the source of intrusion. Linking those power systems to the web for remote monitoring by German vendors could open them to cyber-threats.
People, it is a new world and we must understand these challenges and convene meetings of stakeholders to develop plans immediately. It could be a workshop where we bring our brightest minds on engineering and security and connect them to work with our military. Iran has boasted of having the world’s second-largest cyber-army while China is determined of “winning informationised wars by the mid-21st century”. And Nigeria must prepare and push African Union to develop a Cyber Control Command for Africa or better still develop its own.