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[liberationtech] Computer viruses slow African expansion

Yosem Companys ycompanys at
Sun Dec 27 14:06:40 PST 2009

Wow, very cool...  Thanks for the info, Leslie...  :-)


On Sun, Dec 27, 2009 at 11:51 AM, Leslie Wu <lwu135 at> wrote:

> 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.
> ~Leslie
> 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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