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[liberationtech] Computer viruses slow African expansion

Leslie Wu lwu135 at
Sun Dec 27 11:51:36 PST 2009

And yes, there exists EWB (Engineers without Borders): first I thought it was clap-trap but perhaps as the world modernizes
they'll start to serve as well as DO/MDs do.

And while there are 350+ active projects (so says the website), a keyword
search for "virus" seems to return zero hits.

Please form a team and submit a project proposal here if you like =))

...and feel free to forward to Dan Boneh / John Mitchell and their PhD
students ;) or undergrads / other lists.


On Sat, Dec 26, 2009 at 12:22 PM, Leslie Wu <lwu135 at> wrote:

> Seems like an actual use case for Engineers without Borders! :)
> I've heard things can get nasty in Chinese Windowsland..
> Sent from my iPhone
> On Dec 26, 2009, at 8:43 AM, Yosem Companys <ycompanys at> wrote:
> <>
>   [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 <> | smaller<>
> [image: South Africa]
> Terminal velocity … Computer viruses have caused havoc for government
> programmes and business development in Africa. Photograph: Louise
> Gubb/Corbis
> 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 internet<>.
> 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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