Worldwide pandemics are not a new phenomenon in the history of our planet. What is so different and fascinating about the Covid-19 virus is that it has occurred in the time of global connectedness.
As our ‘in-real-life’ lives have been so heavily restricted, many of us have flocked to exploring the ‘virtual world’. Young and old, we now do things online that even a year ago was unthinkable.
Rather than spending time with family and friends in person, we are connecting via social media and video calls. We are working remotely, learning online and using our devices to replace live entertainment.
Technology and internet are the glue keeping us together during the pandemic but, the more we depend on it, the greater the risks.
Increased online traffic provides cybercriminals and cyberbullies with new opportunities to scam, rob and damage us. But have we got to grips with the risks yet?
Without awareness, we are vulnerable and likely to become victims. This can have many effects on us ranging from mild annoyance and upset, to depression, social anxiety and, in worse cases, self-harm or suicide.
Fortunately, there are organisations popping up around the globe with the purpose of making us aware of the risks and helping us to protect ourselves. One such organisation is Get Safe Online Rwanda which launched a nationwide awareness campaign in July 2020, in partnership with the Ministry of ICT and Innovation and Rwanda Information Society Authority (RISA).
So, what do we as individuals need to know, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe during the pandemic and afterwards?
Social media has become the mainstay of our social lives under the pandemic. We use it for all kinds of things: chatting to friends, meeting new people, dating, entertainment, news, game… the list is endless.
But how much do we understand about the data we post online and how it is used? Perhaps it’s useful to think of our internet footprint like a tattoo in indelible ink. Once you’ve clicked enter, it’s there forever. Our words and images can be copied and pasted onto any forum anywhere in the whole world. It’s a sobering thought.
Not only can our employers, potential spouses or families potentially see our online activities, cybercriminals can also gather information and use it to scam, phish or even blackmail us. It’s all too easy to think that internet scams and fraud are things that happen to other people, not to us or our loved ones. The reality is very different.
Between January and September 2020, 141 cyber fraud cases were reported in Rwanda, with Rwf371 million involved. Of these cases, Rwf89m was recovered successfully and over Rwf280m went unrecovered.
The most common cyber attacks observed in 2020 included ‘social engineering’ through phishing, weak password protection and SIM card fraud. Statistics from the Rwanda Investigation Bureau showed that the rate of cybercrimes escalated during the three months Rwanda was in lockdown, with a 72 percent increase in the amount of money involved.
Out of shame, many people will hide the fact that they have suffered, so the true impact could be much worse.
To stay safe, limit the personal information you share online: keep birthdays, addresses, controversial opinions and wild pictures private. If your gut tells you that something feels wrong, stop what you’re doing and talk to someone you trust about it. If you are unfortunate enough to fall victim to a scam, don’t hide the fact – report it and warn others about it.
With so much pent-up frustration and fear from the pandemic, it is little wonder that the anonymity of social media is now a breeding ground for cyberbullies spreading their abuse online, with devastating consequences.
Cyberbullying, which can include nasty or threatening messages, posting humiliating images or videos, harassment through repeated messaging, spreading rumours and fake information, could affect any of us.
So how do we avoid it? We start with ourselves: never post anything online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to a person’s face. And, if you do feel you are being bullied, tell someone you trust about it. Block the perpetrators, save the evidence and report it to either the social media company or the police. Take action! Don’t suffer in silence.
These are only a few of the issues that we now face navigating the online world. Others, such as keeping safe while working from home, fake news and mobile money scams, to name but a few, also deserve our thoughts and attention.
Just as every single one of us is doing all we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones from Covid-19, we also have responsibility to protect ourselves online. This means that we need to learn about internet safety; be curious about the websites that we and our children are using; and know that what we post online can potentially be seen by anyone.
More than anything, we must develop a culture of open discussion about internet safety. Let’s talk about the sites we’re using, the people we’re meeting online, the scams we suffer. Online safety starts with you. Visit www.getsafeonline.org.rw to learn more.
Jenny Thornton is the Head of International Relations, Get Safe Online. Maurice Haesen Kajangwe is the Senior Cyber Security Engineer, Ministry of ICT and Innovation, Rwanda.