Digital skills development is critical to fight cyber crime

Johannesburg, 31 May 2023

South Africa’s accelerated adoption of digital technologies has the potential to triple the country’s productivity growth, which would result in the creation of up to 1.2 million jobs by 2030. With the country’s unemployment levels hitting an all-time high of 26.5% in 2023, this level of job creation will be a game-changer for economic stability. Gilchrist Mushwana, Director at BDO South Africa and Head of Cybersecurity Service Line, discusses the critical role of skills development, particularly in cyber security, in readying a future-fit and digitally sound workforce.

As one of the most technologically advanced countries on the African continent, predictions are that South Africa’s internet of things (IOT) will grow to a staggering $31.6 billion by 2028, up from $4.98 billion in 2022. Let that sink in. In terms of the cloud market, the country is set to see a 50% increase over the course of 2023. These are just some of the numbers that indicate South Africa is on an accelerated trajectory in terms of digital adoption.

However, with any type of digital adoption comes the ever-present threat of cyber crime. According to INTERPOL, South Africa leads the continent in the number of cyber security threats, with 230 million threat detections in total in 2022, and the third highest number of cyber crime victims worldwide, at a cost of R2.2 billion a year.The country saw a 100% increase in mobile banking application fraud and is estimated to suffer 577 malware attacks an hour. These are incredibly alarming statistics that could, quite easily, stop any kind of digital development in its tracks.

As the threat landscape worsens and cyber criminals become more and more sophisticated, skills development in cyber security becomes critical. Unfortunately, in South Africa, 40% of companies are struggling to hire and retain cyber security talent. In fact, some experts are of the opinion that the country’s digital skills gap has changed from a valley to a canyon and if we don’t make massive inroads in skills development within the next 12 months, we could be left severely lagging.

With skills needed most in the areas of cloud security, cyber threat intelligence and malware analysis, recruitment and retention, specific roles that are proving hard to fill include cloud security, security operations and network security.

Key strategies to develop digital skills and combat cyber crime in South Africa include:

Education and training: Investment in comprehensive education and training programmes that focus on cyber security and digital literacy. This includes raising awareness about common cyber threats, teaching safe online practices and providing technical training on cyber security tools and techniques. Collaboration is also key. Educational institutions, government and private organisations must work together to ensure accessible cyber security education.

Promote inclusivity: The field of cyber security has traditionally been male-dominated, with women significantly underrepresented. Gender inclusivity is not just about achieving equality; it is a strategic imperative for effective threat protection. By including more women in cyber security roles and skills development programmes, a wider range of ideas and approaches can be brought to the table. Different viewpoints can help identify vulnerabilities and devise innovative solutions that may be otherwise be overlooked.

Public-private partnerships: Collaboration between the public and private sectors to share expertise, resources and best practices is essential. The private sector, especially those in the technology and cyber security sectors, should be encouraged to engage in initiatives that promote digital skills development.

Cyber security research and development: There must be more investment in research and development to stay ahead of emerging cyber threats. The work done by universities, research institutions and cyber security start-ups to date in conducting research, developing innovative technologies and creating solutions to address the evolving challenges of cyber crime has had a massive impact on the sector. We now need to ensure that skills development can keep up with that work to build a digitally savvy workforce of the future.

Continuous learning and collaboration: We must find ways to establish platforms for ongoing learning and collaboration within the cyber security community. Professionals should be encouraged to participate in conferences, workshops and webinars to stay updated on the latest industry trends and best practice. By doing this, we can start to build a community of professionals that become active in information sharing, threat intelligence sharing and collaboration.

Awareness campaigns: Education is power. We need more awareness campaigns to educate organisations about the risks of cyber crime and the importance of cyber security. This will empower individuals to protect themselves and their digital assets by promoting strong passwords, regular software updates and safe online practices, for example, so that we can begin to create a cyber security-conscious culture.

Cyber skills development requires a multi-faceted approach involving education, collaboration, research and awareness. By investing in these strategies, South Africa can build a skilled workforce that is well equipped to defend against any scenario within the threat landscape to effectively protect critical infrastructure and ensure the safety and security of organisations, employees and stakeholders in the digital economy.

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