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Gone phishing: The escalation in global cyberattacks is an unintended consequence of 4IR technologies

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Rabelani Dagada is Professor of Practice in the 4th Industrial Revolution, Institute for Intelligent Systems, Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg.

Along with the huge advances being made in technology as the Fourth Industrial Revolution hurtles forward is an equally huge increase in cybercrime and politically motivated cyberattacks. This is fertile ground for criminals, terrorists and geopolitical strategists. It’s a war out there.

There has been tit-for-tat between Russia and the US, where the two nuclear powers accused each other of cyberattack operations on critical infrastructure. The US has gone a step further and blamed China’s ministry of state security for sponsoring hackers who execute illegal cyberoperations internationally as part of sovereign spying, industrial espionage and personal profit through ransomware (cyber-enabled extortions).

In July 2021, state-owned Transnet reported that it had become a victim of cyberattack. In 2020, several local banks, Liberty Holdings, Experian, Momentum Metropolitan and the City of Johannesburg became victims of cyberbreaches.

While these cyberattacks were executed differently, they have one significant similarity: advanced technologies were employed. It is becoming apparent that the mushrooming of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, globalisation, increased deployment of internet infrastructure, and increased working and studying from home have been accompanied by an increase in cyberattacks.

There is no doubt that 4IR technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), 3-D printing, big data, blockchain and robotics are adding much value to our lives and revolutionising how certain things should be done. However, unintentionally, they are escalating cyberattacks. Brief descriptions follow of the 4IR technologies that are more relevant for the purpose of this article:

Artificial Intelligence

AI is a subset of computer science which deals with the creation of artificial (instead of natural human) intelligence that allows computerised virtual systems and machines to intelligently execute tasks and react like human beings. In terms of capacity and speed, AI enables systems and machines to carry out activities massively and quickly, and far more than human labour would be able to.

Computers and mobile devices powered by AI can be designed to conduct some or all of these activities: facial recognition, fingerprint detection, speech recognition, analysis, testing, predicting, problem solving, learning, planning, and being able to manipulate, package and move objects.

Blockchain

This enabling technology started its life by supporting digital currency, Bitcoin. The real revolution in digital commerce is not Bitcoin and other digital moneys, but the blockchain technology. It is an exponential technology when it comes to validation of identity. It provides users with a unique digital identity which follows them around digital places.

Once you have a blockchain ID, it becomes easy to establish your reputation score. This enables merchants and other users in the ecosystem to decide if they can transact with you. The inception of blockchain technology also solved the “double-spending problem”. In a digital world, when you send an item from your device to someone’s device, you retain the original copy. When it comes to digital currency or vouchers, there was the challenge that you could transfer this to someone and still go ahead and make use of the original copies in your possession. Blockchain solved this problem by enabling anyone in the network to own the ledger and see all the transactions.

Internet of Things

This refers to the connection of billions of interrelated computing devices, mobile applications (apps), physical and digital machines, objects and people that are allocated unique identities. These enable the connected things to transfer data over relevant networks without requiring the human-to-computer or human-to-human interaction. This also enables collection and sharing of data. The wireless networks and cheap processors enable one to turn anything from a smartphone app to a self-driving car into a designated IoT network.

The connectedness of things and convergence of technologies constitute a major aspect of digitalisation and this makes the 4IR an exceptional economic revolution. Moreover, connections make possible the addition of digital intelligence to devices and systems that under normal circumstances are dumb, enabling them to communicate and execute the required tasks efficiently without the involvement of human beings. Significantly, IoT merges the physical and digital worlds.

Advanced robotics

Until recently, the use of robots was restricted to stringently controlled functions in particular factories such as automotive plants. Although some rudimentary AI powered those robots, they did not benefit from technologies such as IoT, big data, cloud computing, networks of other robotics and enriched AI. The integration of other digital platforms has led to robots being referred to as “advanced” robotics. Nowadays, robots are increasingly used across all economic sectors and for a variety of tasks. Rapid advancement in robotics has progressively moved towards the collaboration between human beings and machines becoming an everyday occurrence. The next generation of robotics will put the emphasis on human-machine collaboration.

Autonomous vehicles

Automotive vehicles are leveraging the pervasive powers of digitalisation and being networked to the IoT and massive data. Although driverless cars are the most well known, other types of autonomous vehicles have been introduced. These include aircraft, drones, boats, trains and trucks. The integration of AI, digitalisation and sensors has drastically bolstered the capacity of autonomous machines. Within the next few years, low-cost submersibles and drones will be widely used for business purposes and this will drive up digital commerce.  

Flying cars

Flying cars are already here. Over and above their self-driving car programme, Uber’s next big strategy is to introduce a new form of transport through aerial ridesharing or what the company prefers to refer to as “urban aviation”. By mid-2019, more than $1-billion had been invested in 25 different manufacturers of flying cars. A dozen flying vehicles were being test-flown.

Cybersecurity

Rapid adoption of 4IR technologies will lead to the mushrooming of cybersecurity incidents due to the fact that work activities, equipment, infrastructure, systems, mobile apps, companies and countries are interconnected by millions of wireless and mobile networks – some of which are not tightly secured. Most of the billions of devices worldwide that are connected to each other through the IoT lack security and could be the weak link.

The 4IR technologies raise the stakes in terms of digital commerce governance and cybersecurity. Can you imagine the tragedy that would happen if thousands of autonomous vehicles and flying cars around the world were simultaneously hacked while driving by some terrorist organisation? But still, I have no doubt that the best weapon to counter cyberattacks is advanced technology. Fight fire with fire!

South Africa will undoubtedly be one of the countries in the leadership of waging a war against cyberattacks. We have done it before. The country’s big banks, and a few other companies in other sectors, have dedicated teams fighting cybercriminals. So, for example, they spend huge amounts of time blocking phishing emails, taking down spoof websites and trawling thousands of transactions to determine which could be suspicious.

They are very quick, too. For instance, when a spoof website has been picked up, cybersecurity teams in South African banks usually shut it down within 45 minutes, regardless of where it is based worldwide. These teams collect all the evidence, and work with the South African Police Service and Interpol to track down cybercriminals.  

If humanity wants to enjoy the maximum benefits of 4IR technologies, we should up our game against cyberattacks. DM

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