Twenty per cent of Africa’s 1.1 billion-strong population is now online, a new UN report shows, double the number only four years ago, pushed by vastly improved infrastructure, growing content and falling prices.
This rapid uptake has pushed new internet services such as financial transactions, making the continent among the easiest targets for cyber criminals, as attackers have a field day with little fear of being detected, or caught.
Cybercrime, which are illegalities done through the internet or a computer network, has been on the rise in Africa over the last 10 years as the region gets more tech-savvy, breeding concern that the benefits of this may be eroded.
Internet security firm McAfee last month put the cost of cybercrime to the global economy to $445 billion, and while Africa currently loses the least, this is changing as the digital divide is increasingly bridged.
According to InternetWorldStats, the estimated number of Internet users in Africa as at June 2012 was 167.3 million. In 2000, this number was only 4.5 million.
A deluge of big projects that seek to link up the continent to undersea fibre optic cables has driven this surge.
One such pioneer, Seacom, landed on the east African coast in 2007, to much fanfare. Today, Africa’s current cable infrastructure is a web that spans almost the entire continent. Despite this increased activity however, few countries have taken steps to protect their users, creating a paradise for cyber criminals.
At present Africa accounts for 4% of total security incidents worldwide, but this is rising, analysts say.
According to data provided by the Kaspersky Security Network, over the first quarter of 2014, Algeria recorded the highest number of local and web threats, well ahead of second-placed Egypt.
The North African country suffered 18.3million cyber security incidents over the period, with 54.5% of users encountering local threats and 31.6% facing online threats.
South Africa and Kenya also saw a significant number of such incidents. There were over 4.6 million cyber attacks and malware infections on the computers and mobile devices of users in South Africa.
Cybercrime often targets the theft of confidential information to commit economic fraud. According to Alert Africa, a group that raises awareness & improves collaboration on cybercrime, the most common ways of attack are phishing, abuse of system privileges and malicious code infections (viruses).
IT security company, TrendMicro, ranks the 10 countries with highest internet penetration rates – and therefore the highest at risk to cybercrime—as Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Mauritius, Senegal, South Africa, Algeria and Uganda
Of these, only Kenya, Mauritius and South Africa have some form of cybercrime laws to protect their citizens. TrendMicro says that only five African countries in Africa have such laws, the other two being Cameroon and Zambia.
In an interview, Bethwel Opil of Kaspersky Lab East Africa said that despite the increase in internet usage, awareness of cybercrime continues to be low.
According to research by Swedish tech company Ericsson, 70% of users in the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa browse the web on mobile devices, compared with just 6% who use desktop computers.
Opil noted that there are particular concerns for these individuals who use their mobile phones to access the internet, especially for online banking, because the connection between users and banks is not very secure.
His company has been active in countering these threats, but companies also need effective security solutions within their IT perimeter, in addition to good internal policies, he added.
Kaspersky says consumers should protect their devices with trusty software, especially if they do online financial payments and keep other personal account information on the internet.