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For now, African governments are no match for online hackers

August 28, 2012  »  ICT PolicyNo Comment

Compromising government websites is not the solution to curbing human rights violations.

Hackers are a nuisance to African governments and public alike. They interfere with government e-services and hinder communication between officials and the public. A compromised government website potentially negates all benefits of e-governance. How does a citizen learn to trust the government when 1) questionable content is present on official websites and 2) the government can’t secure its web content?

To groups like Anonymous, however, hacking is a quick form of punishment for human rights violations. The thought is that hacking will not only distract the perpetrating government from committing its atrocities, but that media coverage of the hacking will raise global awareness of the issue. Indeed, a hacking for a supposed human rights violation usually causes global sentiment to shift against the hacked nation. It is less clear that a hacking realistically strives to permanently alter the ideology of an institution, however. After all, what are the odds a government accused of harassing a particular group will stop doing so because the website of its prime minister is hacked?

Take Uganda, for example. The Ugandan government has long been accused of intimidating the Ugandan LGBT community. Adding fuel to the fire, a recently proposed (but stalled) bill calls for the death penalty for those caught in homosexual acts. The latter event caused at least one online activist to take action. According to empirical evidence and media sources, a group or individual compromised websites of the prime minister’s office, parliament, the Uganda Securities Exchange and Uganda Law Society. (Click here to learn what was written.)

The hacking comes with irony as the Ugandan government announced the creation of a cyber crime unit only days before its sites were compromised. Days later, following the online attacks, the Ugandan government again vowed to strengthen the IT security of its institutions. In a statement, the National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) reaffirmed, “Our first priority is to apply all necessary resources to give all institutions, the tools, processes and support they require to strengthen the security of their IT systems in case of any incident.” Clearly, however, NITA-U is no match for hacker groups like Anonymous.

Uganda, to its credit, has lofty plans for e-governance, including:

  • promotion of government transparency and accountability
  • reducing the information gap between the people and government
  • eliminating corruption
  • empowering public access to information on the country
  • allowing for public participation in government initiatives
  • updating what government sites exist and adding those that do not

Most of these initiatives will be difficult to achieve if activists continue to disrupt government websites – in Uganda or any other country for that matter. Quite frankly, a government committed to transparency comes across as a hypocrite when its controversial activities are exposed online.

In closing, a government that violates the rights of its people certainly needs to be held accountable for its actions. Still, a hacker who takes out a series of government websites is only muddling possible attempts for greater transparency. Right or not, meddling with government websites will not yield government transparency. Nonetheless, expect a cat-and-mouse game for years to come as African governments attempt to thwart both national and international hackers.