Getting back from ‘The Dark Side’

Technology. Photo: Odd Hill

Last week, a Johannesburg Uber driver engaged me in a conversation about technology and how he could get back to building a career as a developer after he had dropped out of school.

I did my best to educate him on the multiple career paths available, but his interest was in the quickest route to make more money. 

I understood where he was coming from, I also got interested in a tech career after watching the movie “Superman 3”, and I wanted to be like Gus, the hacker character in the movie who made a lot of money from hacking banks.

Luckily, I ended up on the right side with the banks and not against them. 

People need to survive and making money is a great motivator to pursue most careers, a lot of people see technology as the shortest path to making money.

Some of these people learn and become very good, but their desire to make money pushes them to the dark side of technology. 

Anatomy of the Dark Side 

Contrary to the belief of most people and the local moniker “Yahoo Yahoo”, 419 fraud didn’t start online. It started first as mail fraud.

Criminals used the ability of post offices to allow people to pay for bulk mail by using “franking machines” to send a lot of outbound mail to unsuspecting victims.

“The Nigerian Prince” scam was only one iteration of many scams.

The success of these scams on people in environments with more basic trust and little knowledge about Africa made it prosper.

Greed on both sides was another factor. People who wanted to take advantage of “foolish ignorant Africans” became very easy targets.

The scammers capitalised on a stereotype and used a lot of social engineering to harvest victims in the most vulnerable demographics. 

Technology improves all things and the advent of email, and online chatting made the scammers much more efficient at reaching their victims quicker and cheaper.

Cybercafes in Nigeria became the home of young people aspiring to cybercrime careers, and they were conscripted in large numbers to form formidable scamming teams usually led by a more successful “Chairman.”

The visible success of these “Chairmen” only inspired more young people to flock to the dark side. Role models are a potent influence in the choice of careers of young people.

I spoke about it in my TedX Yaba talk last year. This is why we need more successful legitimate technology people as role models.
 
Until we started being blacklisted outside Nigerian for cybercrime activities, a lot of people in Nigeria were blissfully unaware of the damage caused by these scammers. 

The effects of these crimes were no longer on their victims alone but on innocent Nigerians who became victims once again of stereotype.

The “ignorant black African” became the “dangerous cyber criminal.”

My friend and colleague – Roland Ukor, always used to tell me that “Fraud is not a Nigerian word” but we seem to be tagged by it everywhere we go.

Nigerian technology consultants were in high demand outside Nigeria in the 90s, and Nigerian banking software implemented in several banks outside Nigeria but the 419 fraud stereotype overshadowed all of this.

The Right Side 

Cybercrime succeeds because a lot of intelligent people have become criminals, fighting it will only be successful when a lot more smart people become their adversaries. Fighting cybercrime as a Nigerian is tough.

I saw information security consulting as a great opportunity after the “dot.com” boom and was one of the early people to see the potential of fighting cybercrime locally.

The irony is that it became increasingly difficult to participate in global community activities because, “as a Nigerian, I wasn’t trusted.”

I have not only lost several business opportunities in Information Security just because of my nationality; I was walked out of a Cybercrime and Anti-terrorism conference at the Olympia event centre in London after they saw my passport at the security check.

At another event earlier last decade in Florida, a gentleman from security company RSA and I were discussing security tokens, and he asked me for my card so that we take the conversations further.

He returned the card to me, ended the conversation and walked quickly away after he read the card and uttered the words “you are based in Lagos Nigeria”.

South African companies in the anti-money laundering space even refused to work with us based on my nationality.

I have worked in the transactions space for decades all around Africa. We have prevented a lot of frauds and seen a lot of sophisticated attempts made by people who are not of Nigerian origin.

I believe that the Nigerian is the dumbest of all cybercriminals because they depend largely on numbers and brute force.

The Nigerian stereotype is enhanced merely because we have more numbers and not because we are the best at fraud.

Nigeria can turn this stereotype around only when we become much more successful in more significant numbers in other areas.

Indians are no longer seen just as outsourced call centre operators but are now CEOS and top management of global technology organisations. Nigerians can do the same and better.

The fight is hard, and the obstacles are numerous, but I have a lot of faith that things will change.

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