Earlier this month we discussed the story unfolding in Belarus. We read about how a hacker group called the Belarus Cyber Partisans in conjunction with current and former security officials (BYPOL) cyber-attacked their government. It’s a great story, read it here.
In that story the conclusion I made was that the Zimbabwe government was safe against a similar attack. I stand by that conclusion. However, that is not to say Zimbabwe is not vulnerable to cyber attacks. The point was that the exact method used by the Belarusian hackers would be harder to execute here.
It remains that most government communications, records and files are all offline. So there isn’t much information to illegally access through computers.
It remains that the Zimbabwe government has a tighter hold on security forces than the Belarusian dictator’s regime had. After all, the vice president of Zimbabwe was the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces for years, the highest rank in the army. The position from which he managed to help oust the commander-in-chief. He still maintains influence there.
So, how is Zimbabwe vulnerable then?
How hackers could get offline assistance like in Belarus
Disgruntled and undisciplined state agents
It was only a couple of months ago that it was reported that the army was ‘battling to contain rampant indiscipline among soldiers.’ The Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) commanders convened several meetings to address this. The ZNA spokesperson confirmed the meetings:
“We do not share with the media outcomes of our meetings.”
Apparently, junior officers have been involved in armed robberies and other criminal activities. A source told New Zimbabwe that the armed robberies were particularly worrying for the generals:
“What is particularly troubling the generals is that some of these officers are part of the military’s elites and responsible for securing dignitaries.”
The generals see the solution to the indiscipline being two-pronged. The prong that interests us here is the political one. The generals recognise that the soldiers are being driven to crime by the harsh economic conditions in the country. Said the army source to New Zimbabwe:
“The top people do acknowledge that the solution is not only found within the military, but there is a political solution to it…… it was resolved that the army-civil relations department must take charge of the process of engaging the political leaders to alert them to the dangers facing the country if the economy is not fixed.”
So it appears that the Zimbabwe government has its own problems with disgruntled security personnel. However, it seems most of the indiscipline is contained in the lower ranks. So it is not clear what kind of information these junior officers could ‘steal’ in a similar way to the Belarusian BYPOL.
The threat they pose however is enough to attract the attention of the army’s top generals. Rightly so, disgruntlement leads to indiscipline which may lead to rebellion/mutiny. This means that while the government may still have a tight hold on the security forces, their grip has loosened a little.
It should be noted that this disgruntlement is not isolated to army personnel. The police and other civil servants may pose threats in their own capacities.
G40 and other disgruntled former government officials
When Robert Mugabe was ousted, some high ranking government officials loyal to him had to be ousted as well. These individuals are still angry and are in the unique position of having some inside information. Of course some locks were changed when they left the house but they could still remember which windows can be shimmied open.
The precedence set by the 2017 ‘bloodless coup’
As one reader, Always Off Topic, commented on the original article, the activities of 2017 may come back to haunt the Zim government. Once other players see that a coup can be successful, they are strengthened in their resolve. It then becomes the de facto power transfer method.
Thailand has had 13 successful and nine unsuccessful coups in just over a century. The most recent being in 2014. That means a coup every decade in the last 100 years.
If the disgruntled soldiers in Zimbabwe are not reined in, they could get ideas. Worse still if the ousted G40 and other former ZANU PF members were to influence them. After all, as Always Off Topic notes, these ousted veterans have ‘an intimate knowledge of internal government systems and protocols.’
The financial sector
Hackers could target the financial sector players in Zimbabwe with a view to kill two birds with one stone. Make money and undermine the economy and therefore the government. Zimbabwe has had currency shortages for years and so most transactions are electronic.
The government may be mostly offline but financial institutions, including the RBZ, cannot exist offline. The challenge is that most of these financial institutions are privately owned. This means that the government cannot know where their loyalties lie. Even if they could count on there being no saboteurs, how secure are their systems?
The government sweated over the dominance of EcoCash, the most popular mobile money solution in the country. A privately owned company, in which even other states can have ownership, controlled payments in the country. 80% of all transactions in Zimbabwe to be exact. The then ICT Minister elaborated the cause for concern:
“It may be a commercial success but it’s a disaster if we look at it from a public sector point of view. What happens if that system fails at a critical moment?”
EcoCash has had some of those failures he feared and the effects were massive. Some reports have claimed that EcoCash was hacked and the Financial Intelligence Unit reported that the mobile money operator’s databases were compromised. EcoCash has maintained that they have never been hacked.
The government could not take that chance and proceeded to systematically work to reduce EcoCash’s dominance. The final solution was designating Zimswitch the national switch. More secure? To be determined.
The Zimbabwe Information and Communication Technologies (ZICT), a division of the Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers has repeatedly warned that our banks are susceptible to cyber attacks.
We have seen bank websites defaced but apparently, more serious hacks may have succeeded which were never made public.
A cyber auditor once told us that they have dealt with many hacks at Zimbabwean institutions. The problem is that none of these organisations want it to be known that they were hacked. The fight against cyber crime is a solitary affair in Zimbabwe. Each man for himself. There is no concerted effort involving public and private entities.
When the WannaCry ransomware hit the world, Zimbabwe was listed among nations that were affected. However, no organisation ever admitted to falling victim. As regards the WannaCry ransomware, ZICT reported that:
“We have realised that financial services does not have a way of stopping this kind of cyberattack, which can cripple the sector.”
The lack of cooperation, ZICT sees as one of the biggest weaknesses in Zimbabwe’s defence against cyber crime. As reported by Newsday:
“ZICT found that companies operate independently of one another and the government, which made it easier for cybercrime activities.”
All this more or less applies to the Insurance, Healthcare, Telecommunications and Retails sectors. Although organisations vary wildly in preparedness to deal with attacks.
Lack of skill in state agents
The first step towards making a concerted effort against cyber crime was made with the passing of the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill through the Senate. The Cyber Bill has its ambiguities but the biggest challenge is going to be enforcing it. Said the Zimbabwe Republic Police:
“Currently, the Zimbabwe Republic Police is grappling with technical challenges in gathering evidence on cyber crime and other sophisticated cases as criminals are manipulating advances in technology to broaden and perpetuate delinquencies in a complex manner.”
The lawmakers were aware of the lack of skill in state agents and included in it the provision to legally ‘force’ competent civilians to help. Of course, there will be no compensation for that.
Previously, the ZRP has provided comic relief by holding 5-day cybercrime training initiatives. It was a start but was nowhere near the amount of effort needed to close that skills gap.
The ZRP on its part is now seeking proper help and has signed an agreement with the Harare Institute of Technology to cooperate on software enhancement and staff development. The hope is that this will “increase efficiency and minimise time taken in carrying out some tasks such as investigation of cyber crimes by the law enforcement agency.”
Cyber crime has increased in the country as it has across the continent. The kind that has been reported in Zimbabwe has not been of the government toppling kind. However, that does not mean there aren’t such aspirations in some hackers in the shadows.
I maintain that a government hack such as the one in Belarus is harder to execute in Zimbabwe. Not because we are better prepared. Rather mostly because no such attempt has been made and that we still mostly operate offline. Especially in state agencies where sensitive information is peddled.
The government can rest easy but with one eye open for now.
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