Just a Simple Hacking Attack?

This post is also available in: German

Kampala Jina-Kampala Road

It is certainly never boring in Uganda. If one doesn’t have to fight corruption, or is faced with insufficiently trained or de-motivated colleagues and co-workers, or is frustrated by the quality of some products, or has the excitement of finding a green mamba in the garden, then for a change you may be faced with blackmail and data abuse…

A message, which the email program allocates as ‘spam’, just a lapidary sentence saying “pay us money within 48 hours or we’ll publish the pictures of your atrocities here in Uganda”, floats the mind with curiosity. At first glance it appears just another spam until one opens the attached files which reveal oneself on the screen in snapshots taken by one’s husband some while ago.

First thought: “Hacker attack! What a pain!” The many anti-virus programs, firewalls, spy-ware gimmicks, consistently used but ultimately useless.

Immediate Reaction: surf the Internet, read forums, download even more anti-virus programs and anti spy-ware. Examine the computer from top to bottom, only to find 400 cookies relating to pornographic web sites fixed to the caretaker’s log-in you had generously set-up on your computer and allowed him to use.

Next thought: “Caretaker, you scoundrel! Misusing our confidence!”

However there is a small snag when given time to think about it. The received pictures, although I exactly remember them and the approximate time when they were taken, are not to be found on the computer at home. In addition, the numbers (DSC000xxx) show pictures of Kampala. Despite the surfed porno web sites and the growing rage of the interference into our privacy, the caretaker must therefore be excluded from suspicion. The pictures were never on the computer at home therefore the caretaker cannot have sent them or saved them on a USB stick.

Where were the pictures then?

Oh God! The work laptop which was returned in June, after the cancellation of contract. Naturally I had deleted all the data before returning the laptop, however I had somehow still believed that there was a spark of professionalism left in my assignment organisation, hence I did not format the disk nor did I over write the hard disk several times as a precaution.

Thus, this morning a visit to the country office where I actually thought I would never have to set foot again. No success. My request to be given the whereabouts of my laptop were to be discussed internally first.

German Embassy – they were extremely sorry, but unfortunately cases like this are not within the scope of their responsibility. However, if there would be more cases like this, then… oh, whatever, possibly better just simply to ignore the blackmail?

I objected to this suggestion. Although, I’m not worried about the personal pictures – the criminals can publish them, print, sent them to friends, put them up as posters at their walls, share them with their neighbours if it pleases them – I just don’t care. However what really worries me is the simple fact that a security hole exists, and above all what are the intentions of these criminals with my other deleted data that they have no doubt been able to retrieve from the laptop?

I was advised to report to the local police – then the Embassy will be in a position to report my case to the Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations in Germany. Whether this will help or not, they don’t know, they never had any similar cases.

Therefore, tomorrow morning is reserved for the experience of visiting the Ugandan Central Police Station here in Kampala. If I’m lucky they may probably provide more professional assistance than the world renowned efficient Germans?

If that does not help, then perhaps I can revert to the alternative suggestion from my Ugandan and international friends: They have already identified the telephone company which assigned the IP address of the email sender, and now they are looking around if they have anybody in their circle of acquaintances who know someone within the company itself; and then this nice guy will be asked to look up the owner in their records. This is obviously illegal but what does it matter, the people who sent the email to me did also something illegal; and first.

Then I am advised to go either personally to the criminal’s place and organize a giant fuss and destroy their furniture and computers, or alternatively I am to engage a few people to do this job for me. This would be the Ugandan solution – help yourself – never trust the police and authorities. In addition, all of my friends offered to join this action.

My bank accounts are locked since Friday afternoon; my credit cards are being exchanged, the Embassy offered to issue a new passport and driving licence.

Who still perceives Uganda as an underdeveloped country, exclusively populated by starving orphans and street children and people living in mud huts, should possibly start slowly reconsidering their opinion. Somehow Uganda reminds me of the film “Once Upon a Time In America”, a freely mushrooming economy in rapid upswing on the basis of great poverty – and this rapid development accompanied by enormous crime.

Uganda should not be underestimated! Here live highly clever and intelligent people paired with the daily fight of survival – a highly explosive mixture and no surprise that the common expatriate is then confronted with things that are unimaginable in our cocooned societies.

Besides, I’m wondering if this blackmailing action is possibly connected with jealousy and envy towards the so obviously successful white expatriates – whether this blackmail has a deeper purpose. An outcry against Mzungus in general? Leave our country alone possibly?

It is not unknown that if people are dissatisfied with their jobs they stop delivering and only work to the bare minimum. This is probably international – and here in Uganda I observed this kind of poor working attitude in nearly all development projects. Unmotivated Ugandans who can hardly be bothered to participate in anything.

The common ignorant expatriate puts such behaviour down to stupidity and inertness of Ugandans but I must contradict this opinion – Ugandans are everything but stupid and lazy. If a co-worker doesn’t work then there is motivation lacking; often caused by the foreign management style and/or lack of identification with the company’s targets. I also assume that many Ugandans must feel quite used. If you look at the monthly expatriate’s salary which hits the account and then compare with the Ugandan’s salaries, it equates to rather unequal wages for quite similar work.

Therefore I cannot help asking myself whether this blackmailing action is not only simply a criminal act of opportunist hackers but possibly the next level of showing general discontent with the development services; instead of acting de-motivated many Ugandans are now trying the opposite approach and trying to exploit the exploiters.

Many of my expatriate friends confirmed that they have had similar experiences – by SMS and email – they just don’t like to speak about it, and try hard to forget the incidents. It’s simply too personal.