Hacktivists strike Africa’s North Korea in “massive” cyber attack

  • The small African nation of Eritrea has said that it foiled a “massive cyber attack” on its Independence Day.
  • The country is known for its many human rights violations and militarism, so much so that it is called “Africa’s North Korea.”
  • It is likely that protestors were behind the attack in a rare example of African hacktivism.

The small horn of Africa country Eritrea announced on news wires on the weekend that it had foiled a “massive cyber attack” against its internet systems. The attack came during the country’s Independence Day, 24th May in the afternoon, it said.

“The attempt was foiled by the defensive countermeasures deployed promptly, and the network continued its functions without interruptions,” it explained, adding that “The identity of the originators, architects, and implementers of the attempted cyber attack is not alien to the watchful eyes of the Eritrean Government.”

Eritrea won independence from its closest neighbour Ethiopia after a bitter war more than three decades ago, and has since been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki, a dictator who has never held a national election. The small country is considered one of the most militarised in the world, and one of the least developed nations.

The government’s Ministry of Information finishes the short announcement by saying that “the whole episode will be divulged in time.” While Africa is widely considered to be the most at-risk continent in terms of cyberattacks, an attack on a country’s sovereign systems of this scale is a rarity.

What happened in Eritrea?

For the militarised Eritrea and the horn of Africa’s ongoing regional conflicts, it is possible that the attack is a recent example of cyber warfare. Most likely, however, is that the Independence Day attack was an attempt from hacktivists to shock the government of Afwerki, who has been receiving a new wave of dissent from the Erirtrean diaspora, living abroad.

Protestors are angry that a promised freedom never came to be. Now three decades later, and still no free press, still no constitution. Some critics describe the country as “Africa’s North Korea” for its many human rights violations.

The Erirtrean Independence Day faced so much backlash around the world from Eritreans against the country’s dictatorship and its indefinite military conscriptions, some countries even banned celebrations outright out of fear that they may turn violent.

Usually large-scale cyber attacks faced in African countries target specific systems, such as the Transnet ransomware attack in 2021, that effectively crippled South Africa’s ports for a week. These attacks are performed by international bad actors looking to make money, and they target the lowest-hanging fruit.

In that case, South Africa’s port authority’s old systems and essentially non-existent cyber resilience at the time. They are also almost always social engineering attacks, meaning that bad actors gain access to systems via employees who are not versed in good cybersecurity habits, like not opening suspicious links or falling to phishing in spam emails.

Companies like Russian cybersecurity provider Kaspersky and others have long said that African companies and governments should invest in experts and education to begin staving off these expensive attacks.

Hacktivists operating in Africa are rare

Rarely do African countries fall victim to hacktivistic cyber attacks, large-scale hacks on systems by protestors. A recent international example is the hacktivist group Ghosts of Palestine, who have been launching cyber attacks on Israeli systems during the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

In 2010, self-described hacktivists hacked into the Ugandan State House website and posted a picture of Adolf Hitler with the swastika, comparing the historical villain to President Yoweri Museveni. Uganda is infamous for its discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws, which includes life imprisonments for gay people.

Activity from hacktivists has emerged as a new threat to companies and governments in Africa in recent years, according to networking firm SEACOM. “This is an often overlooked element of cyber crime and companies rarely think that they will fall victim to hacktivism,” it explained. It says that companies to should try to maintain a good online reputation and take a proactive approach to handling negative sentiments they may encounter on social media.

For Eritrea, the country may see more of these kinds of attacks in the future. We’ll be eagerly awaiting to see the “full episode” when the country decides to divulge the happenings.

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]


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