Podcast 🎧 & blog: Making Tonga’s cyberspace more secure

18.01.2023 | Federico Plantera

Making the national cyberspace more secure does not pertain only to protecting it from cyber attacks. It is a day-to-day job, a commitment to small best practices too that do make a difference – and help prevent disruptions in our work activities, and the functioning of the public sector.

Epp Maaten, Team Lead on Cybersecurity, joins us from Chișinău, Moldova, to explore how e-Governance Academy assisted Tonga in its digital recovery from a natural disaster, and the place of cybersecurity within that unique context.

Volcanic threat and the digital recovery, in the Pacific Ocean

Last year, a volcanic eruption brought the Pacific islands of Tonga in the spotlight. International media turned their attention towards this fairly remote part of the world as the natural disaster ensued – cutting ties between the islands that compose the country, and the rest of the world.

“Sadly, it was a lesson learnt the hard way. To countries in remote parts of the world, common threats may consist of environmental events like this – and not perhaps geopolitical matters, or direct, malicious attacks to their systems. As a result, internet was cut off for days, or even weeks in some areas,” Maaten explains.

“Fortunately, the country already had built own e-governance databases. So as connections were restored, services became available online again. But such experience showed that there always is the need for a backup plan, and alternative procedures to rely on. Definitely something that will be kept in mind for the future.”

Cybersecurity beyond malicious and targeted attacks

Defense against all kinds of threats, and ensuring continuity of service provision, are key learnings for a country that encountered the internet only in relatively recent times.

“It was just 2003 when Tonga got its first submarine cable providing secure and constant internet connection. The need for digital transformation in the public sector arose from the quest to bridge all the different islands that make the country, and facilitate service delivery in a context with many remote areas,” Maaten recalls.

In Tonga, it is now clearer than ever that threats to its digital government can go beyond malicious attacks. “After years of building a digital government, the attention may now shift to raising civil servants’ awareness of threats in the cyberspace. That is what this project was about. With the support of the World Bank, our focus was to create a framework for public authorities to effectively assess risks in the cyberspace, and pick appropriate measures to mitigate those risks,” Maaten highlights.

Many factors at play in the making of a secure cyberspace

It is no surprise that part of the trainings that took place in Tonga were focused on improving civil servants’ cyber hygiene. Knowledge and awareness that everyone needs, and that made a big part of the project, upon request of the Tongan government. All together Epp Maaten conducted seven workshops for more than 120 government officials.

“People in government have realized how trustworthy citizens are, but thus also vulnerable to potential threats. Everybody has smartphones, they interact a lot with each other, they are very friendly, also because they are such a small society. But such goodwill might not prove too good to have on the internet – a place where you definitely shouldn’t trust everybody,” Maaten warns. “One goal of the Tongan government was to bring this knowledge to civil servants,” and adopt a more careful approach online in appropriate situations.

Another seemingly unlikely issue that plays a role in this region of the world is related to supply chains. “To restore connections with the main island, damaged underwater cables needed to be repaired or replaced. And Tonga, obviously, as a small country, is not producing such cables. So they’ve been waiting for months to get them from abroad, and be able to go forward with their digital recovery plans,” Maaten says. A sign of how supply chain issues and all sub-related matters, despite affecting everyone in the world, could have more impact on some than others.