Security Watch

Cybersecurity: Lessons for SA from Germany

Minister Mahlobo – lessons from Germany

Announcing in his budget vote speech that cybersecurity has been identified as a priority, the Minister of State Security and the State Security Agency (SSA), David Mahlobo, could learn valuable lessons from mistakes made by their German counterpart. 

In his budget speech on 5 May 2015 Minister Mahlobo highlighted cybersecurity as an intelligence priority and said that in the 2015/16 financial year they “plan to move with speed” to:

  • Enhance the institutional cybersecurity capacity;
  • Finalise the national cybersecurity policy and legislation;
  • Work with the security cluster to present the Cyber Security Bill before Cabinet this year;
  • Strengthen cooperation with SADC, AU and BRICS partners through existing mechanisms; and
  • Prioritise the establishment of the Cybersecurity Centre and the repositioning of the current Electronic Communications Security Computer Security Incident Response Team (ECS-CSIRT) to become a Government CSIRT.

Minister Mahlobo and SSA are reeling under a number of recent blunders that severely dented the public image of the Ministry of State Security. These bungles include the Al Jazeera spy cable sage, the signal jamming fiasco in parliament, the decision to investigate the ludicrous accusations of certain public figures being spies for the CIA (apparently only because they are irritants to the ANC) and the failure to foresee the recent xenophobic attacks,

But the minister got it right this time with the announcement that cybersecurity is to receive priority attention, saying: “Globally, nation states are faced with a challenge of putting measures in place to protect their territorial integrity, national security and critical infrastructures and citizens against cyberattacks, cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare.”

German example

The vulnerability of states, including so-called first world states, to technological surveillance and cyberattacks was vividly confirmed by the revelations in a recent article, “Willing Helper: Intelligence Scandal Puts Merkel in Tight Place,” in the leading German magazine, Der Spiegel.

The article explains in detail how the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States (US) exploited the good relationship with Germany’s foreign intelligence service, Bundesnachrichtendienst, (BND), to spy not only on selected German targets but also on targets in other European countries.

Startlingly, the article also revealed how senior officials in the German government and the President’s office despite themselves being victims of US espionage, were aware of the US using and exploiting BND facilities to spy on European targets, but did nothing to stop it.

Economic and trade secrets are high on the American spying list, with the NSA attempting to spy on various European firms, including EADS, the European aerospace and defence company, now called the Airbus Group.

The Airbus Group is the largest defence company in Europe and manufactures goods that compete with American firms.

The disclosure of the American intelligence community’s opportunism proved yet again that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

In past articles the Intelligence Bulletin reported how the US government was using technology to spy not only on millions of ordinary American citizens and people around the world but also on some of its closest allies on a scale never witnessed before.

One of the prime targets was Germany, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, came under intense domestic pressure for her close relationship with the US after it was revealed not only were German interests compromised, but her own mobile phone conversations intercepted.

Subtle pressure

The embarrassment caused by the exposure of the NSA’s opportunism can be traced back to the calculated German decision to collaborate closely with the US on intelligence matters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The fact that three of the pilots and three of their accomplices had lived in Hamburg, made Germany, according to a US investigative committee, partly responsible for failing to prevent the 9/11 attack.

A deep sense of duty subtly exploited by the US underlies the German readiness to collaborate closely with the US intelligence establishment, which persuaded a member of Chancellor Merkel’s office to describe the BND as the “CIA's and NSA's best branch office”.

Important observation

Der Spiegel laments that, “Even if Germany had wanted greater distance, greater control and more autonomy, it would scarcely have been possible for the country to emancipate itself from the US. One reason for that is that the BND was slow to recognize the need to radically change its technological approach and its reconnaissance objectives.”

With this as background Minister Mahlobo and his advisors are correct in their assessment that it has become imperative for the SSA to face and meet the challenges posted in the rapidly changing cybersecurity domain.

The embarrassment of the BND being exposed for knowingly collaborating with US counterparts electronically to collect information on selected targets in some European countries and the discomfiture it is causing the Merkel administration is, according to critics and observers, partly as result of the lack of proper political oversight.

The German example holds in itself another important lesson for South Africa.  

Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence is, given the secretiveness of the world of intelligence, one of the most important parliamentary standing committees and should at all costs remain unbiased and must always strive to keep the intelligence community on its toes and within the confines of its legally defined responsibilities.

Equally important is the selection of a new inspector-general of intelligence to replace the outgoing advocate Faith Radebe who acts as an ombudsman overseeing the intelligence agencies and their activities.

Failure to solve the current controversy that followed the decision to conduct the interviews of possible candidates in camera and behind closed doors will not only handicap the newly appointed inspector-general but will also fail to improve the tarnished image of the SSA.

by Garth Cilliers

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