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The ballooning threat of cybercrime in Africa: How AI is changing the game

By Peter French – General Manager – MEA & South Asia, Acronis

In today’s rapidly advancing technological landscape, Africa-based SMEs and organizations are increasingly finding themselves standing at a critical digital crossroads. Despite the region’s relentless pursuit of growth and adoption of cutting-edge technologies, most of these enterprises have inadvertently exposed their vulnerable underbelly to the ever-evolving threat of cybercrime.

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As malicious actors continue to formulate ingenious attack methods aimed at exploiting Africa’s rising digital ecosystem, the clarion call from cyber protection experts is getting louder by the day: African small and medium size business owners, governments, and individual internet users must, therefore, remain steadfast and vigilant. It’s high time they took proactive measures to safeguard their invaluable digital assets.

Artificial intelligence (AI), an innovation of unparalleled opportunities is rapidly emerging as a formidable double-edged sword in the realm of cybersecurity. While it has undoubtedly empowered enterprises in Africa, it has also unfortunately become a potent weapon employed by adversaries to orchestrate sophisticated cyber-attacks.

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Consequently, the integration of AI into the fabric of Africa’s digital ecosystems ushers in a new era of opportunities and challenges. Drawing inspiration from success stories and practical applications in other developed regions, Africa must seize the moment and embrace AI-powered cyber protection, all the while fortifying itself against potential vulnerabilities.

By arming themselves with tried-and-tested AI-driven cyber protection tools, African enterprises can overwhelmingly strike a harmonious balance between cost-effective day-to-day operations and a significantly diminished risk of falling prey to cybercriminals. Through the lens of AI-centric cyber protection, SMEs and large organizations across Africa’s digital ecosystem can significantly enhance their early detection and response capabilities, automate mundane and repetitive tasks, and most importantly, fortify their overall online security.

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Threat landscape

Enterprises in developing economies in Africa are constantly facing a myriad of cybersecurity threats with some of them, unfortunately, losing millions of dollars in the process. According to InterPol’s  African Cyberthreat Assessment Report 2021, Africa has the fastest-growing internet networks in the world. This growth has, however, exposed the region to unimaginable risks that need to be addressed with urgency.

South Africa, which is ranked as the sixth-most dense region for cybercrime in the world, reported a surge from 14.1 victims per one million internet users in 2019 to 50.8 victims in 2020. In Kenya and Nigeria, financial phishing attempts rose significantly in Q1 and Q2 of 2022 as banks, online payment systems, and e-commerce websites were targeted indiscriminately, this is according to the Acronis End-of-Year Cyber Threats Report 2022.

In Kenya, for instance, over 100,000 financial phishing attacks were detected – a 201 percent increase compared to Q1 with Nigeria reporting over 61,000 financial phishing attacks, representing an increase of 79 percent compared to Q1.

Businesses and organizations in these emerging economies have reported numerous cases that range from online scams, digital extortion, business email compromise, ransomware, botnets, espionage, threat to critical infrastructure, and organized crime, among others.

Most recently, one of Kenya’s leading supermarket chains, Naivas, became the latest victim of a data breach following a ransomware attack by Threat Actor – a rather unfortunate incident that raises crucial questions about the continent’s preparedness. Businesses operating in the region, therefore, need to step up their cyber protection efforts and fast-track the adoption and subsequent deployment of effective countermeasures.

The way to go

As part of the overall cyber protection strategy, the region’s business landscape needs to map out and implement greater regional cooperation, increase its investments in cybersecurity efforts and capabilities, develop innovation-driven national strategies, greater reliance on expertise and insights from the private sector, and improved employee awareness and education.

South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya are among the African countries that have made significant progress in developing national cybersecurity strategies. However, there are still lies several challenges such as overreliance on the government sector for cybersecurity expertise and decision-making, limited resources, lack of awareness, inadequate policies and regulations, and limited cybersecurity expertise.

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