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Time to protect confidentiality of information

Opinion
Recently, I raised the question of improving cyber safety, in particular the use and application of social media. This led to a huge outcry from various quarters and an outright rejection, all of this without any sound and critical evaluation, or engagement with the view we expressed.

It has consistently been the position of the government that we recognise the importance of the technological advancements and their potential in moving our country forward.

We’ve maintained that information-sharing via the electronic web, or as it is alternatively cyberspace has revolutionised our world and the way in which we interact with each other. It has brought exciting opportunities in developing our economies, improving our health care, education, agricultural production, the provision of services to name but a few.

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David Mahlobo

These opportunities are endless.

Electronic computing and communication does, however, bring with it some of the most complex challenges the world has ever faced. They range from protecting the confidentiality and integrity of transmitted information to deterring any compromise which could have devastating consequences for individuals, companies and governments.

At the individual level untold suffering is experienced as a result of cyber bullying, phishing, young girls being lured by sex pests posing as “blessers”, defamation of character and others. The extent of this is not known as many choose not to report their harrowing experiences.

In addition, the upsurge in "fake news" and "photo-shopping" of pictures to create a negative narrative that affects individuals and organisations alike adds another alarming dimension.

Corporates have not been spared either, with billions of rands being lost through cybercrime and cyber espionage. More often than not, the net effect of such incidents is largely not being communicated for a variety of reasons which could range from potential reputational damage to loss in share value.

Last year alone, a number of critical government databases throughout the world, which hold millions of personal records and sensitive information were subjected to hacking. Such attacks, if successful, can bring untold catastrophe to governments around the world. South Africa has not been spared this either.

Read also: EU privacy proposal could dent Facebook

When we consider all these events, from a personal to corporate and government perspective, I am confident we will all agree that not everyone who traverses cyberspace does so with the noblest intentions such as promoting development, economic growth or good relations amongst people. There are those who have nefarious intentions and sadly they are slowly but surely plying their trade.

It is against this background that the government has sought to comprehensively deal with measures to secure our cyberspace and to create the necessary conditions for individuals, corporates and the government to do their business with increased security in place.

The Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill is but one measure the government is introducing to deal with this phenomenon. It is a legal framework which will help secure our cyberspace better. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to participate in the processing and finalisation of this bill by parliament in this current year.

The views I expressed around social media and dealing with "fake news" and other negative narratives must also be viewed against this background. Social media is but one of the sub-sets of bigger cyberspace infrastructure.

I have noted that some have expressed an uneasiness with our involvement in what they consider to be an area that should be foreign to us. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to remind readers that in 2013 the cabinet approved a Cybersecurity Policy Framework for the government and charged the State Security Agency with the mandate to co-ordinate the government’s response to this area of concern.

Competencies

Since then a great deal of work has taken place with various government departments developing policies that focus on their area of competencies. A number of co-ordinating structures have been set up to manage issues such as training and development of home-grown solutions.

The launch of the Cyber Centre by the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, working together with CSIR is one such product of the work done by various government departments.

We were given this co-ordinating responsibility precisely because in terms of our counter intelligence mandate. My department is essentially the security risk manager of SA Inc and therefore we cannot sit idly by when the advancement in technology present both opportunities and threats which we have to appraise the government of.

We have real work to do in ensuring that South Africans have only positive experiences whenever they do their business in cyberspace, in all its facets. We have a collective responsibility to find home-grown solutions to the challenges we face.

While we can differ on the approach we must be united in one thing; a safe and secure cyberspace is a non-negotiable.

David Mahlobo is Minister of State Security.

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