Africa a growing target for economic espionage

Posted on September 20, 2015 12:00 am

According to espionage research and various studies that I have come across in recent past, economic espionage is the most practiced compared to geo-political and social factors. Since the days of Alexander the Great, the intersection of business and national security is informative to understand the changes in how these threats are being defined.Economic espionage has been steadily rising since the late 1980s and thats what led to the passage of the economic espionage laws in the United States and several other western countries like France, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and Ireland.According to recent data, estimated annual losses of $150 billion have been suffered by the largest 1,000 European firms due to economic espionage and more than $70 billion by similar number of firms in United States of America as of 2014.According to a trade law expert, the theft of trade secrets is an under-appreciated trend that has many implications besides financial losses.In general public domain, it is regarded as a corporate issue, cast as a failure of information technology systems to secure proprietary information.Unfortunately, the reality is that much of this activity is state-sponsored and aimed at undermining the competitiveness of competing countries.Making this task all the more difficult for Africa is the role of technology, which produces white noise distracting from the interlocking nature of the problems Africa confront and exposes overseen vulnerabilities to be exploited by its adversaries.

Most interestingly,technology has given the rise to asymmetrical conflict, of a kind more complex than the stylised nuclear attack by a non-state actor.It allows African countries adversaries to operate increasingly in stealth, using unassuming appliances such as household computers and under the guise of civilians. The fact is that warfare consumerisation has raised the cost and the chances of an unintended strike causing collateral damage to Africa.On one hand, the future of warfare will give rise to a new kind of proxy war, in which states not only sponsor attacks conducted by militias and terrorist organisations but also provide air time to spin masters who happily peddle propaganda.The future of warfare is hybrid in the sense that it is as much about negating the adversary’s ideological content as it is about dismantling its organisations.Correctly perceiving issues and their implications is the overarching challenge in the future of warfare. Addressing this matter Africa will naturally take time and investment, especially for militaries, because historically national security concerns have been clearly parsed and separate from broader economic ones as East African Community member states are doing.

Kampala Skyline as seen in this photo I took late last year.Uganda is a member country of East African Community
Kampala Skyline as seen in this photo I took late last year. Uganda is a member state of East African Community

In East African countries, in order to take extra steps to keep state enterprises secrets from being extracted to foreign nationals wanting a peek into them, a candidate for employment is asked to detail his or her family background, including the occupations and social activities of all family members.This is just among efforts to prevent any leaking and it is necessary strategy as those countries are a regular target of espionage. As Kenya’s economy soars at an impressive rate and with the defence budget expanding aggressively, several state companies and government agencies have increasingly become targets of espionage according to some sources working as security experts with law enforcement agencies in that country.National Intelligence Service (NIS) official was recently quoted by an international security magazine there were indications that espionage activities have been increasing lately.He added “We’re worried with such activities.More resources are now allocated to prevent them. It’s part of NIS priorities,”unidentified official said, refusing to elaborate further. He said there were two African countries one of which is a neighbouring nation that have become more aggressive in spying into Kenya’s economy.It was not until recently that NIS had its own economic-intelligence division to help counter espionage in the business and economy sector.There is need for aggressive efforts needed to counter the espionage.

Since African countries can’t sue the perpetrators, we have to find ways to outsmart them. Recently unconfirmed reports indicated there were at least 36 African countries embassies that had been bugged overseas.All in all, there were two kinds of foreign intelligence officers operating across African countries.Those posted in official diplomatic positions, such as military attachés and secretaries, and those who work in covert operations. These covert agents are mostly embedded within multinational companies and non-governmental organisations.No doubt economic espionage is a common practice employed by state actors,there is need for local Africa intelligence community to improve technologies and infrastructure to help keep state secrets safe. Although espionage has lately relied on cyber infrastructure in Africa,me think African countries would only suffer minor impacts as most government agencies were not storing sensitive information in digital form, let alone in an integrated computer system. Its kind of a blessing in disguise. As long as Africa institutions have no super-secret information kept on their computers, there will be no reason for foreign data collectors to mobilise their resources to spy on us through the Internet. African countries understanding the future of warfare technology behind it,its various applications and limits gives a robust advantage for modern militaries that progressively reconstitute themselves to deal with emergent threats to Africa while balancing the efficiencies gained against temptation to be trigger happy as a result of superior offensive capabilities.

For instance, given that militaries are increasingly being called on to help mitigate humanitarian crises in war torn parts of Africa like Darfur, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo, technology can be used to frustrate emergency preparedness by causing false alarms and choking off supply chains.An example is where an opportunistically timed technological attack can disable a vital systems node that could disastrously delay response times.However, in such times of complexity and uncertainty, the role of judgment, resolve and decision-making takes on heightened importance and more often than not points to a way out. This suggests that some aspects of effective African militaries heading to the future of warfare will not change. Technology is not a crutch for Africa’s military leadership. Nor will it substitute the need for boots on the ground in places like South Sudan, Somalia and parts of Central and West Africa. At their core, Africa militaries remain human organizations.The future of warfare therefore will be dominated by forward-looking and adaptive African leaders who see that as the external environment becomes more enmeshed and complex, the traits above must be honed in order to grapple with widening asymmetries placing peace at risk in a continent with more than 1 billion people. Effective African militaries in the future will succeed in identifying the nature of emergent threats, their diffuse effects and the whole set of those complicit.

Contador Harrison