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Cell phones will thrive in Africa, but security will be a problem

NEW YORK — The African continent may not be the first place people think of when technology is involved, but many of the countries there have come to depend on mobile phones as their primary means of communication (even more so than landline telephones or computers), and this dependence will only grow in the near future. This reliance on handheld gadgets may come at a cost though, given that they generally have poor cyber security in place, says Seymour Goodman, a Georgia Institute of Technology international affairs and computing professor and co-director of the school's Information Security Center.

Cell phones have flourished in Africa because many of the countries there have few landlines, and computers are still expensive, Goodman said at a Marconi Society symposium here yesterday. He noted that about 300 million of the world's nearly 3.5 billion cell phones are in Africa (which has a population of roughly one billion). "The people of Africa will appreciate that a $300 iPhone will do a lot more for their family than a $100 laptop," he added.

As cell phones become more technologically advanced, they will become the top tech platform for the large majority of the world, according to Goodman. Mobile devices and networks, however, will be vulnerable to malware, hacker attacks and theft, just like computers are today. "You're going to have a situation, where the whole world is now going to get on the Internet, and they're going to do it on their cell phones," he said. As a result, "people of Africa will see cyber security problems that make what we face today seem easy."

The solution will require advances in technology, in particular mobile phone batteries. "Cell phones are less capable of being defended than laptops," Goodman said. "Encrypting and decrypting information on something with a cell phone battery uses up all your juice." Securing information at the network level would help, but this too will take some work. As it stands, Tunisia is the only one of 54 African nations that has a national Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT).

(Additional coverage of the April 16 Marconi Society symposium.)


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