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[liberationtech] Computer viruses slow African expansion

Yosem Companys ycompanys at
Sat Dec 26 08:43:21 PST 2009

[image: home] <>
Computer viruses slow African expansion

Hampered by pirated software and super-slow download times, computer users
in Africa are finding PC viruses hard to eradicate

   - Chris Michael <>
   - <>, Wednesday 12 August 2009
   20.30 BST
   -  larger <> |

[image: South Africa]

Terminal velocity … Computer viruses have caused havoc for government
programmes and business development in Africa. Photograph: Louise

Alan Mercer was at his desk in the regional capacity building bureau in
Assosa, westernEthiopia <>, when a
man burst into his office, distraught. Right at the end of a four-year
master's degree programme, he had lost the only copy of his thesis to a
computer virus. Mercer, an IT trainer with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO),
wasn't surprised. "Show me an Ethiopian computer without a virus and I'd ask
which foreigner it belongs to," he says.

While western countries have partially learned to neutralise the threat of
computer viruses, Africa has become a hive of trojans, worms and exploiters
of all stripes. As PC use on the continent has spread in the past decade (in
Ethiopia it has gone from 0.01% of the Ethiopian population to 0.45% through
1999-2008), viruses have hitched a ride, wreaking havoc on development
efforts, government programmes and fledgling businesses.
*Infection rate*

"It wouldn't be unreasonable to say 80% of all computers you find in Africa
will have some nastiness on them," says Tariq Khokhar, the chief development
officer of Aptivate, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on IT.
This compares to around 30% in the UK, according to Panda Security. The cost
is hard to measure, but ask IT consultants and development workers about the
impact, and the stories pour out. Mercer tells of an agriculture bureau
employee who lost the multi-year plan for agricultural improvements for the
Benishangul-Gumuz region, Ethiopia's fourth poorest area. Jeremy Brown, an
IT consultant in Cameroon, says that one client was operating with more than
200 infected files, drastically slowing down its PCs, corrupting
confidential information and exposing it over the
Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions found in May that its
website was spreading viruses to visitors. "Viruses are pretty endemic,"
says Brown. "All organisations and individuals are affected by them."

Viruses spontaneously reboot computers, destroy vital data, and clog
Ethiopia's already severely pinched internet connection (it is not unusual
to wait 10 minutes to access a single web page). The result: funding
applications delayed, small businesses hurt, and hours wasted. "PCs that
were bought with limited funds or donated sit collecting dust in the corner
of the room because they have been devastated by viruses," says André
Mohamed, an IT professional in Ethiopia. "It's a major reduction in
productivity and efficiency."

"Viruses are our enemy," says Debebe Fikreselassie, the head of ICT at the
Benishangul-Gumuz bureau where Mercer is a VSO volunteer. "We are installing
free antivirus but the behaviour of the virus is changing [over] time … and
developing countries lack money to buy licensed antivirus like Symantec."

That hits the nail on the head, agrees Tim Unwin, the Unesco chair of ICT4D,
an IT development collective at Royal Holloway, University of London. "The
fundamental problem is that institutions in much of the developing world
cannot afford the antivirus [AV] protection that those in richer countries
can," he says. Khokhar agrees. "For Africa, the cost of AV is pretty damn
high. An annual licence of £30 per user per year can get pretty daunting
when you've got 1,000 users."

Without special pricing, poor countries are forced to rely on free antivirus
products, such as AVG. "Writing antivirus software is a fairly
brain-intensive task, and AVG just don't have the resources," Khokhar says.
"It's not to say something's not better than nothing, but ultimately, the
viruses that are going to cause real damage are going to get through."

Brand-new PCs are often ridden with viruses from the start when vendors
install pirated, infected copies of Windows – Khokhar estimates that around
a third of pirated software is already infected. And even when antivirus
software is installed, it is almost impossible to keep up to date. The daily
update of new virus definitions from Symantec is around 40MB; McAfee's is
around 100MB. "On a 56Kb dialup link, we are talking all day to download,"
Mercer says. Sometimes the update file is removed and replaced by a newer
one before the download has had time to complete.

"The entire national bandwidth for Ethiopia, I can simulate that in my
house," Khokhar says. This keeps Ethiopia off the antivirus software
provider Kaspersky's annual list of the top 10 countries both originating
and being targeted by viruses; in 2008, China led both categories. The
Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy) would help Ethiopians download
antivirus updates faster, but would also expose them to more attacks. "If
you wanted a way to get [African countries] on to that top 10 list of
countries affected by viruses, the first step is to install a big internet
connection," Khokhar says.

The financial and technical problems are compounded by the developing
world's dire shortage of IT education. "The IT degrees here are totally
theoretical. People do not understand the concept of backups, antivirus and
data security in the first place," says Mercer.

Computer viruses are not the only reason Africa lags behind the west in IT
development. Electricity supply, training, and bandwidth management issues
make e-business a pipe dream in most places. But people are fighting back.
Mercer does a day of antivirus and power-protection training as part of all
his training courses, as do many people at VSO on an informal basis.
*Throw out Windows*

Unwin says replacing Windows with Linux would help (80% of viruses are
written in China, where Windows dominates). The Ethiopian government has, in
fact, made open source software central to its IT plans. Khokhar says it's
no magic solution. "If you suddenly had an increase in Linux or Mac use in
China, you'd find those two platforms are just as vulnerable." Using better
software in general, he argues, would be a better place to start. "If you
could somehow clobber RealNetworks, Adobe and Microsoft to say, 'Can you
please write software that doesn't have that many exploits, or if exploits
are identified, have some mechanism for closing them more quickly' – then
that would really help."

It's a good bet that virus writers devising ever more ingenious ways of
sticking a knife between Microsoft's ribs rarely consider where their
handiwork ends up.

"I'd take them to Ethiopia," says Mercer. "I'd show them the man who lost
his agricultural development plan to the virus he wrote. Then I'd show him
the kids who will die in two years because the agricultural reforms came too
late and the annual harvest failed because the agricultural development plan
at the regional agricultural bureau was destroyed by his virus."

The sad irony is that Ethiopia's enthusiastic embrace of the computer has
made it more vulnerable, as people start dispensing with paper records.
"Now, with no backup, and important data on a computer, they are at risk –
they have something to lose," Mercer says. Mohamed agrees: "The computer,
instead of being an enabler for development, often becomes a hindrance."

   - © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
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