Professor’s Fulbright Research Examines Cybersecurity Threats Through the Lens of Newly Tech-Reliant Countries



By Casey Moffitt
Portrait of Maurice Dawson

Maurice Dawson, assistant professor of information technology and management at Illinois Institute of Technology, used his award from the United States Fulbright Scholar Program to explore cybersecurity issues in developing countries and how they can have a global impact.

Dawson, who also serves as director of Illinois Tech’s Center for Cyber Security and Forensics Education, allocated his fourth Fulbright Scholar award to conduct research and deliver lectures at Botswana International University of Science and Technology.

Dawson says that his time in Botswana was an excellent opportunity to discover cybersecurity solutions in countries that are becoming more dependent on technology. He discovered that cultural issues complicated technical cybersecurity issues.

“The people of Botswana are very trusting,” Dawson says. “It’s a country of 2.4 million people, and everybody seems to know everybody.”

Botswana is also surrounded by neighboring countries with corrupt governments, political instability, and scammers who operate freely, Dawson says, and it is closely connected to its neighbors. For example, Botswana works closely with South Africa for some of its infrastructure needs and Zimbabwe to supplement its labor force.

This combination of a trusting culture and close ties with its neighbors can make for a challenging cybersecurity environment.

“When you’re sharing resources with your neighbors, it opens new vulnerabilities,” Dawson says. “You expect your neighbor to be secure, but that’s not always the case.”

There are elements in place to improve cybersecurity in Botswana, Dawson says. The tech infrastructure has been modernized, which allows the implementation of cybersecurity measures.

“Having that central infrastructure is a big deal, so we can have the cybersecurity mechanisms in place,” Dawson says. “Now they have to start thinking about attacks. Throughout most of the country, they just don’t think about it.”

Part of Dawson’s work included examining cybersecurity issues associated with the possibility of using drones that the Botswana Defence Force uses to deter poaching. Botswana is home to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the Moremi Game Reserve, and a network of national parks that cover nearly a fifth or more of the country’s land mass. This vast wilderness attracts poachers from neighboring countries.

“The Botswana Defence Force relies on outdated methods to look for poachers from Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa,” Dawson explains. “We looked at how drones could include other internet-enabled technologies and ensure that cybersecurity can be used to secure the data these drones are collecting.”

Dawson teamed up with Oteng Tabona and Thabiso Maupong of Botswana International University of Science and Technology to edit a cybersecurity book, Cybersecurity Capabilities in Developing Countries and Its Impact on Global Society. The book, Dawson’s fourth on the subject of cybersecurity, is a collection of research and case studies that examine the security of mobile devices, databases, system networks, and the Internet of Things as developing nations make rapid advances in technological progress.

“We knew we had time to work on editing the book, so we contacted researchers from South Africa to make contributions,” Dawson says. “All these nations are thinking about the Internet of Things, cryptocurrency, and artificial intelligence. So they need to think about security as well.”

The book covers the techniques, laws, and training initiatives being implemented and adapted for secure computing and is designed as a reference source for researchers, university academics, computing professionals, and upper-level students.

The book also explores how cybersecurity issues in these developing nations can have a global effect.

“It looks at how a credit scam in South Africa can affect me in Singapore,” Dawson says. “Everything is intertwined.”

Dawson wrote a chapter of the book, “East African Cybersecurity: Improving Microfinance Database in Ethiopia.” His collaborators on the chapter include Damon Walker, a teaching professor of information systems and technology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Tenace Setor, assistant professor of information systems and quantitative analysis at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He also recruited two recent Illinois Tech alumni, Andreas Vassilakos (ITM, M.A.S. CYF ’21) and Harshini Chellasmy (ITM, M.A.S. CYF ’22), to make contributions.

The research highlights how Kenya has become an East African leader in using information communications technology (ICT), specifically in mobile payments and health care. Other East African nations, such as Ethiopia, have seen how this technology has impacted Kenyan society and are increasingly trying to replicate those efforts.

In Ethiopia, many farmers rely on ICT to secure financing to cover the costs of land leases, materials purchases, and labor. Dawson says the highly authoritarian government has made security issues more difficult as they have outlawed security measures such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). However, the significant undermining of the use of cryptography leaves micro-financing databases vulnerable.

“Many times, farmers apply for a loan, and that information gets lost,” Dawson says. “In many cases, the information is stored on USB drives, and someone drives them to another location to process the loan. It’s not uncommon for those USB drives to get lost.”

Dawson says the research team looked at open-source solutions that could be effectively installed into these databases and USB drives to make them more secure. Dawson says the costs of securing these assets are a big concern, which is why the team focuses efforts on open source solutions.

To further provide insight into the connectedness of cybersecurity, Dawson held the Positive Uses of Technology and Science (PUTS) Scientific Workshop in Tunisia in July 2022. This conference had participants from L'Institut Supérieur des Etudes Technologiques en Communications de Tunis (ISET’COM), Nigeria, Saint Louis University (SLU), Capital Technology University, Botswana International University of Science and Technology, and others. He aims to hold this conference back in West Africa and Nigeria in the summer of 2023.

Dawson says he hopes his experience at Botswana International University of Science and Technology can lead to further research collaboration and the possibility of student exchanges. He says he is encouraged as some researchers he met during his time at Botswana participated in ChiCyberCon, a cybersecurity conference held on Illinois Tech’s campus, in April 2022.

Photo: Assistant Professor of Information Technology and Management Maurice Dawson