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Cybercriminals are putting vulnerable individuals and communities at increased risk, which is cause for significant concern as the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is fast-tracked and the world moves to digital.

This is according to cybersecurity experts who were speaking at the launch of the Gov-X Innovation Challenge, a cyber-themed learning programme and hackathon. The challenge is a public-private sector collaboration aiming to inspire the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and cybersecurity specialists to tackle challenges of cybersecurity and online gender-based violence.

Working with the CyberSecurity Hub and the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, the University of the Western Cape: Future-Innovation Lab has partnered with KnowBe4, provider of the world’s largest security awareness training and simulated phishing platform, TrendMicro, BCX, Bi-Technologies, Vox Telecom, NClose, Blck Rhino, and Bi-Tech Africa to host the Gov-X Innovation Challenge.

Speaking at a virtual launch event, stakeholders noted that the 4IR had been fast-tracked by the Covid-19 pandemic, making it crucial for everyone to have the skills and tools necessary for safe digital work and life. However, risks such as cybercrime and digital gender-based violence stood in the way of many people benefiting from the digital world. These risks need to be mitigated, and individual users and communities have to be empowered and protected in the digital realm, they said.

Collaborating for a safer digital world

Pinky Kekana, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Communications and Digital Technology, noted that the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos had recognised cyber security as one of the top 11 impact areas this year. She noted that future prosperity depended on next generation technologies. “Therefore, there is an urgent need for collective action, policy intervention and improved accountability on the part of government and business, to maintain the integrity and trust of emergent technologies in a world now reliant on digital technologies to work, entertain us and even babysit our kids,” she said.

“The WEF has been clear – we need a new approach to how technologies are harnessed and regulated to accelerate growth, encourage innovation and build resilience in the wake of Covid-19. A hackathon such as this can holistically address the top cybersecurity challenges.”

Curbing digital GBV

Anna Collard, SVP Content Strategy and Evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, highlighted the African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet Report, 2020, which found that when perpetrators were reported to the platform in South Africa, they were only banned from the platform in 15% of the cases. Collard also cited other research indicating that around 39% of women in Africa were concerned about going online due to the risk of online GBV. “There are organisations helping GBV victims in general, but few if any to help victims of online GBV. It’s not ‘nothing’: victims suffer, and they often have to get off the platform or reinvent their digital identity, but currently law enforcement is not equipped to understand the problem.”

“We need to address this risk to ensure the digital world is safe and inclusive,” Collard said. “Law enforcement and first responder awareness needs to be raised, and platforms need to identify and block GBV and misogynistic content. We need more data and comparative analysis of what’s actually going on. We also need more awareness, to make it easier for victims to report such crimes, and set up entities where they can get help and counselling.”

The Gov-X Innovation Challenge aims to find solutions for a more digitised and cyber safe South Africa. Collard said: “Through the hackathon, we want to find solutions to help victims and prevent cybercrime and online GBV, as well as to raise cybersecurity awareness among citizens and communities.”

Over the course of the next three months, participants in Gov-X will work with the help of mentors to drive innovation towards a more digitized and cyber safe South Africa and to provide safer spaces in which vulnerable end users can live, work and transact online.  The themes that are set to be tackled at the challenge include supporting the national competency via the National Computer Security Incident Response team (CSIRT), helping to curb online GBV and provide assistance to victims, and raising cybersecurity awareness within communities. The prizes include R100 000 for first place, R30 000 for second place and R10 000 for the third runner-up. Additional prizes include internships in the sponsor’s organizations as well as bursaries for cybersecurity qualifications.