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Gap in SA’s IT skills – and policy

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There is an immediate unsatisfied need for skills in the ICT sector that is only going to get worse – and demands sustained investment in education and training. It also demands that government policy be translated into capacity building.

These are key conclusions from the seventh skills trends survey in the South African information and communications technology (ICT) sector, conducted by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) . The survey is part of the JCSE’s continuous effort to create a meaningful representation of South Africa’s ICT skills landscape and provide an outline of the current skills priorities and gaps in the sector.

Adrian Schofield, the JCSE’s manager of Applied Research and author of the report, says South Africa continues to fall behind its African peers while the state of the local economy sees the sector’s clients cut back their own expenditures. He adds that the lack of improvement in South Africa’s basic education remains a major concern. “Exposure to and familiarity with ICT for all learners is essential. Some laudable initiatives have appeared, such as the use of tablets in Gauteng schools, but they have yet to reach a sustained, critical mass for all grades of learners.”

Trends in technology adoption place increasing emphasis on ICT sub-sectors such as cloud; big data/analytics; mobile; security and the “Internet of Things”.  The 2016 survey once again identifies six leading priorities for managers of ICTs, with Information Security emerging as the clear leader, followed by Network Infrastructure, Software as a Service/Cloud Computing, Database Development and Application Development. Owing to its growing profile, the report separated sixth place Big Data/Internet of Things from the Business Intelligence/ Knowledge Management category, which now appears in seventh place.

“Many of the characteristics of the global ICT sector that were mentioned in our 2014 report remain true in 2016,” Schofield explains. “What were then emerging technologies, such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), have become mainstream and the issue of cybersecurity has risen to top-of-mind for many senior executives.” In the report the JCSE says technology developments have reached the stage of being referred to as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, signalling the disruption of business models and labour dynamics.

While the introduction and increased use of new technologies will inevitably reduce the demand for labour used for white-collar roles and repetitive tasks, there will be a converse demand for the specialised skills that create, implement and maintain these new technologies. Schofield says the message to decision and policy makers seems clear. “There is an immediate unsatisfied need for skills in the

ICT sector that is only going to get worse in the medium and long term. Significant and sustained investment in education and training is required to have any hope of alleviating the skills gap.” Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, says previous editions of the survey referred to the optimism of potential growth in the African economy and the opportunity for investment in ICTs to fuel growth. “There continue to be hopeful signs that the potential can and will be fulfilled. IBM has opened its second Research Laboratory on the continent, at the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein,

Johannesburg. SAP has achieved remarkable success with is Africa Code Week events, and Amazon which has run a development centre in Cape Town since 2004, has opened an office in Johannesburg,” says Dwolatzky.

Despite some positive developments, the report notes that political turmoil continues to bedevil the lives of many Africans, often exacerbated by the effects of floods and droughts, while in South Africa the economy shows worrying signs of sliding into a recession. Similarly, political uncertainty and poor leadership are having a negative impact on many sectors. As an example, the report cites a failure to implement vital projects in the ICT sector, such as the switch to digital terrestrial television services and the implementation of the national broadband network. “Our view is that the ICT skills gap in South Africa is a reality that continues to haunt the country’s ability to lift its performance across all sectors to the level that will sustainably address the unacceptable burdens of poverty and unemployment,” Dwolatzky adds.

The 2016 JCSE ICT Skills Survey suggests various players in the South African ICT sector including government departments and agencies, commercial enterprises, non-profit organisations and associations form a cohesive and coordinated team in order to meet and overcome challenges and address the skills gap. “We urge all stakeholders to take the opportunity to translate the policy into capacity-building by ensuring that coordinated skills development provides the building blocks for creating the dynamic, sustainable ICT sector that will support the growth of South Africa’s economy and the improvement in the lives of all who live here,” concludes Schofield.

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Crouching Yeti strikes

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Kaspersky Lab has uncovered infrastructure used by the Russian-speaking APT group Crouching Yeti, also known as Energetic Bear, which includes compromised servers across the world.

According to the research, numerous servers in different countries were hit since 2016, sometimes in order to gain access to other resources. Others, including those hosting Russian websites, were used as watering holes.

Crouching Yeti is a Russian-speaking advanced persistent threat (APT) group that Kaspersky Lab has been tracking since 2010. It is best known for targeting industrial sectors around the world, with a primary focus on energy facilities, for the main purpose of stealing valuable data from victim systems. One of the techniques the group has been widely using is through watering hole attacks: the attackers injected websites with a link redirecting visitors to a malicious server.

Recently Kaspersky Lab has discovered a number of servers, compromised by the group, belonging to different organisations based in Russia, the U.S., Turkey and European countries, and not limited to industrial companies. According to researchers, they were hit in 2016 and 2017 with different purposes. Thus, besides watering hole, in some cases they were used as intermediaries to conduct attacks on other resources.

In the process of analysing infected servers, researchers identified numerous websites and servers used by organisations in Russia, U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America that the attackers had scanned with various tools, possibly to find a server that could be used to establish a foothold for hosting the attackers’ tools and to subsequently develop an attack. Some of the sites scanned may have been of interest to the attackers as candidates for waterhole. The range of websites and servers that captured the attention of the intruders is extensive. Kaspersky Lab researchers found that the attackers had scanned numerous websites of different types, including online stores and services, public organisations, NGOs, manufacturing, etc.

Also, experts found that the group used publicly available malicious tools, designed for analyzing servers, and for seeking out and collecting information. In addition, a modified sshd file with a preinstalled backdoor was discovered. This was used to replace the original file and could be authorised with a ‘master password’.

“Crouching Yeti is a notorious Russian-speaking group that has been active for many years and is still successfully targeting industrial organisations through watering hole attacks, among other techniques. Our findings show that the group compromised servers not only for establishing watering holes, but also for further scanning, and they actively used open-sourced tools that made it much harder to identify them afterwards,” said Vladimir Dashchenko, Head of Vulnerability Research Group at Kaspersky Lab ICS CERT.

“The group’s activities, such as initial data collection, the theft of authentication data, and the scanning of resources, are used to launch further attacks. The diversity of infected servers and scanned resources suggests the group may operate in the interests of the third parties,” he added.

Kaspersky Lab recommends that organisations implement a comprehensive framework against advanced threats comprising of dedicated security solutions for targeted attack detection and incident response, along with expert services and threat intelligence. As a part of Kaspersky Threat Management and Defense, our anti-targeted attack platform detects an attack at early stages by analysing suspicious network activity, while Kaspersky EDR brings improved endpoint visibility, investigation capabilities and response automation. These are enhanced with global threat intelligence and Kaspersky Lab’s expert services with specialisation in threat hunting and incident response.

More details on this recent Crouching Yeti activity can be found on the Kaspersky Lab ICS CERT website.

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R5m in software fines

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South African companies paid almost R5.2 million in damages for using unlicensed software in 2017 up from R3.6 million in 2016.

This is according to data from BSA | The Software Alliance, a non-profit, global trade association created to advance the goals of the software industry and its hardware partners.

The significant increase in unlicensed software payments – which includes settlements as well as the cost of acquiring new software to become compliant – is the result of more accurate leads from informers, says Darren Olivier, Partner at Adams & Adams, legal counsel for BSA. In 2017 BSA received 281 reports in South Africa alleging the use of unlicensed software products of BSA member companies – this up considerably up from 230 leads in 2016.

“BSA’s recent social media campaign also helped to create awareness among local companies about the need to comply with existing legislation in order to avoid legal action,” Olivier says.

The result has been a 13% increase in settlements paid in 2017, with the settlements total reaching almost R2.5 million.

While the average settlement paid by companies in 2017 was around R36 094, in some cases the amount owed was far greater, as is evidenced by Shereno Printers, a print and design company based in Gauteng, which ended up paying a hefty settlement amount of R260 000 last year in an out of court settlement.

The company’s case was in line with a broader trend, which saw the print and design industry as a whole rank among the top sectors plagued by unlicensed software.

Aside from settlements, companies also paid more than R2.6 million in licenses purchased to legalise their unlicensed software.

And the ramifications of software piracy extend beyond financial implications. “It also results in potential job losses and loss in tax revenue. This is not to mention the financial and reputational damage brought about by security breaches and lost data,” comments Olivier.

As unlicensed software has not been updated with the latest security features, it leaves businesses vulnerable to cyberattack, he explains.

This is a particular problem for companies operating in South Africa where economic crime has recently reached record levels, according to the Global Economic Crime Survey. Indeed, 77% of South African organisations have experienced some form of economic crime. What’s more, instances of cybercrime totalled 29% of economic crimes reported.

This in turn, raises questions around government policy and the adequacy of existing copyright legislation, which only enables the registration of copyright in films, but not in computer programs.

Olivier notes that it is likely the percentage of unlicensed software on South African computers has increased over the past year. “We received many more leads this year, which is an indicator that the amount of pirated software is greater than in previous years,” he comments.

Often unlicensed software is not so much a case of deliberate piracy as it is a result of poor software asset management (SAM).

“For this reason, the BSA encourages all businesses to ensure they have effective SAM practices in place. Companies should be able to confirm what software they are using and are licensed to use – this will help them to identify unlicensed software and can also bring about cost savings. Even the most basic SAM practices such as regular inventories and software use policies can help,” says Chair of the BSA SA Committee, Billa Coetsee.

With this in mind the BSA offers a range of SAM solutions, not only to help organisations reduce legal and security risks, but also to create business value.

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