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What are the security implications of Starlink expansion for Africa?

The protection of the overarching interests and rights of Africa(ns), and not just “profits”, should be at the centre of considerations and all negotiations before new technologies are transferred or adopted from elsewhere
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President Muhammadu Buhari on 2 February 2023 announced that Nigeria’s broadband penetration is now 100 per cent following the launch of Starlink services in the country. Nigeria, by this development, becomes the first African country to enjoy the services of Starlink. While the Nigerian government and its people celebrate what many consider a major breakthrough and milestone for fast internet access, especially in the majority of Nigeria’s rural communities where internet services were hitherto to reach, it is important that the Nigerian government and even more so other African countries carefully consider the broader implications of this development for digital and cyber security on the continent.

According to Starlink’s availability map, 20 more countries, including Zambia, Senegal, Morocco, and Angola are scheduled for a 2023 launch. Sixteen countries—Uganda, Tunisia, Ghana and Egypt inclusive—are scheduled for a 2024 release, while 18 more countries have unconfirmed launch windows.

There is no gainsaying that low earth orbit (LEO)-based technology such as Starlink will yield faster connection speeds with lower latency than traditional geostationary satellite-based services, and help link young people to global opportunities, especially those in rural, digitally unconnected communities across Africa who can now access free and/or cheap internet in public community libraries and schools. Also, such technology will deliver broadband connectivity to inhospitable terrains around the globe and provide backup in emergency situations.  In the words of Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Starlink, “The important thing about this is that it means there are no dead zones anywhere in the world for your cell phone,” giving the example of hikers who get lost and are currently unable to call for help. It is also believed that the launch of Starlink, especially in African countries, will give startup owners and companies a sigh of relief, as some of them are geographically dispersed in such a way that they were unable to access reliable and fast internet before now.

However, as positive as some of the aforementioned outcomes of the deployment of Starlink and other LEO-based technologies are, the known and unforeseen digital and cyber security implications of such rollouts for countries on the African continent should be a major concern and one to closely watch for. This becomes even more critical considering the fact that programmes by companies such as Starlink are being heavily funded by the US government, whose interests may not be clearly known at the moment.

It is, therefore, necessary for African countries to ensure that Starlink with its planned expansion on the continent adheres strictly to existing international law and legal framework governing space exploration. Space and telecommunication regulatory agencies and human rights groups on the African continent must be ready to hold Starlink accountable by making sure their operations on the continent follow international and national norms: refrain from restricting access to content or collecting user data in breach of international human rights treaties and should follow the coordination and recording procedures of the International Telecommunications Union.

Moreover, while possibilities of highly-connected systems with greater automation, autonomy and data collection that LEO-based technologies like Starlink offer will be very appealing for companies and startups in Africa, it is necessary that these companies understand that such change brings with it increased cyber risk for their systems. Through the new constellations, malicious cyber actors will have access to what is arguably the best internet connection available, which will dramatically increase their attack surface. Hence, companies and startups using the services of Starlink will have to adjust their security posture at the same time as any change in their use of network connections.

Most importantly, LEO companies like Starlink which have very strong links with and funding from world powers could pose national security risks to less powerful countries, especially in Africa, if their programmes and operations are diverted for use in military actions against other countries in times of war and arms conflict. Looking to the future, it becomes necessary for governments in Africa to support tech companies based in their countries to develop low earth orbit satellite constellations technology infrastructure and capabilities for use in Africa by Africans. By doing this, we will significantly reduce the digital and national security risks associated with western-based companies funded by patronizing governments with a long history of intruding into the internal affairs of less powerful countries.

In sum, as Nigerians and the rest of African countries celebrate this exciting opportunity for them to gain easy access to fast information and communication services through the launch of Starlink, governments in Africa through their various space and telecommunication regulatory agencies must do due diligence and develop frameworks that ensure that the digital rights of Africans using these new technologies are protected by law. At the end of the day, the protection of the overarching interests and rights of Africa(ns), and not just “profits”, should be at the centre of considerations and all negotiations before new technologies are transferred or adopted from elsewhere.

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