(This content is a translation of the original article in Macedonian, published on the 6th of December 2022)
Metamorphosis Foundation for the 18th time organized the international e-Society.mk conference, which started on the 6th of December. The two-day conference in the Marriott hotel in Skopje with the motto “Cyber Resilience for Freedom and Security” started in a completely full room, with opening remarks by David Geer, the EU ambassador to North Macedonia; Dirk Jan Kop, the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Matthew Lawson, the ambassador of the United Kingdom. The executive director of the Metamorphosis Foundation, Bardhyl Jashari, also delivered opening remarks, while the State secretary of the Ministry of Defence of North Macedonia, Vladimir Anchev represented the Minister of Defence. In addition, Vice Prime Minister Slavica Grkovska addressed the audience via video call.
The EU Ambassador Geer stressed that cyber resilience is the highlight of the year. The cost of cybercrime in the world is US$ 1 trillion, which is somewhat less than 1 percent of the global GDP. The EU Ambassador added that Russia has been staging cyberattacks within the war against Ukraine, with the aim of inciting fear.
“Think of the attacks from the 14th of January this years, which targeted over 70 websites with hacker attacks, leaving Ukrainian citizens in fear and expecting the worst”, His Excellency Geer noted.
Such was the case, he added, in North Macedonia, with the cyberattacks on the day of the parliamentary elections in July 2020, but also the attacks on the sites of the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Agriculture, but also of the biggest university in North Macedonia, UKIM.
The EU Ambassador noted that the country was lagging behind in its capacity to defy cyberattacks, and added that although the strategy has been developed, its implementation was rather slow. Some of the weaknesses identified by the EU are the lack of common elements, like the identification of competent bodies and the establishment of practical institutional cooperation for defying cyberattacks. Ambassador Geer said that benchmarks for estimating the success were also missing, but most importantly, the two national bodies were not fully operational.
“Their operations have been uncoordinated and fragmented”, EU Ambassador David Geer stressed.
He said that there are other weaknesses, which can be seen in other countries, as well, including a limited number of employees in the state institutions and poor management of the databases in many institutions, which are highly vulnerable to attacks.
In his address, Geer stressed that the country had no channels of cooperation between the private sector and civil society. National institutions must participate more actively in the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity. North Macedonia should urgently make use of the EU cyberattack response unit. He also mentioned that the country started EU accession talks in July 2022, therefore the screening process opened the opportunity to update the activities related to cyber resilience.
Netherlands’ Ambassador Dirk Van Kop, addressed the audience at the opening of the conference, saying that cyber resilience was at the top of the concerns of North Macedonia, therefore one cannot talk about security without cyberspace security. The Dutch approach to cybersecurity was by stopping those who were violating the rules. The Netherlands however, strives to help other countries in the field of cyber resilience.
Ambassador Jan Kop added that North Macedonia was prone to conspiracy theories, thereby being a good place for spreading disinformation. That was the reason why the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands, in synergy with the Metamorphosis Foundation, has been implementing a regional project for discovering disinformation and foreign malign impacts on democracy. He also said he is very happy that North Macedonia became 103-rd member of GFCE – Global Forum on Cyber Expertise.
In his address at the conference, the UK Ambassador Matthew Lawson mentioned that the best balance between freedom and security was to be able to answer the following three questions: Who does the internet belong to?, Who is using the internet? and Who is regulating the Internet? Due to the fact that the answers are not straightforward, it is quite a difficult task to find balance between freedom and security.
He noted that there are 2 billion internet users and 5 billion mobile phone connections today. Such enormous statistics are important for cyber resilience, as well. Lawson mentioned that twenty years ago, the first hacker attack made all the following attacks more subtle. According to the data from UK, cyber resilience had costed the British government 27 billion pounds last year. The main victims of the cyberthreats are the businesses, which lose intellectual property or become targets of espionage.
At the opening of the conference, the Vice Prime Minister for Good Governance Policies, Slavica Grkovska, said that we must work in the area of cybersecurity and cyber resilience as a society and both processes must be implemented in parallel with the digital transformation process of the society.
“Cybersecurity should not be seen as a cost, but as an investment that protects our country and our citizens from external attacks, on the one hand, but also enables strengthening the trust of the citizens in the institutions of the system, on the other”, Vice Prime-minister Grkovska stressed in her address.
She pinpointed that upon an initiative of her cabinet, North Macedonia became the 103-rd member of GFCE – Global Forum on Cyber Expertise, where members and governments of the most developed countries in the World cooperate with entities such as OSCE, World Bank, United Nations, European Union, Council of Europe, Interpol, economic chambers and private companies working in this field.
Grkovska announced that next week, in cooperation with the Estonian organization E-governance Academy that was helping the digital transformation processes in several countries, a “Strategic Cyber Security Table-Top Exercise” will be organized with representatives from almost all governmental ministries and agencies competent for cybersecurity.
Addressing the audience at the conference, the State сecretary of the Ministry of Defence, Vladimir Anchev, said that digital transformation is becoming the key driving force for development of the society. Nevertheless, the ever-growing dependency on information and communication technologies increased the requirement for an operational cyber defence system.
“While making the most of the technologies, we – but also the other side that performs cyberattacks – want the same”, State Secretary Anchev stressed.
Cyberattacks are a serious security challenge for the state, and in the region and in our country we are experiencing an increased number of cyberattacks.
“Unfortunately, we cannot just discard them as a one-off or as something that occurred in the past and which will never happen again in the future”, Anchev said, adding that the country was aware of all attacks instigated by the country’s support for Ukraine”.
“The Defence Ministry defined priorities for cyber defence and undertakes specific steps”, said the State Secretary.
He mentioned the establishment of a military cyber response team that was in the phase of development. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence invested in the certification of its employees and retaining the highly educated staff in the Ministry, necessary for the cyber defence system. In that direction, Anchev stressed, an additional step are the amendments of the Law on Army Service that provided for scholarships for such critical human resources to be developed in the long run.
The second priority of the ministry is the development of the so-called cyber defence authority that will supervise activities of this kind on the national level. The third important initiative is the establishment of cyber elements in the Light infantry battalion group, thereby providing cybersecurity to this military unit.
The Executive Director of Metamorphosis Foundation, Bardhyl Jashari, said that the e-Society.mk conference is always organized on topics that the foundation deems important and treats them as priorities for finding the right solutions.
The topic of cyber secure society imposed itself as an extremely important topic for this year.
“The challenges are many – the world is changing quickly, digitalization enables that to happen as fast as possible, and digital technologies make services of greater quality and much faster. With this kind of change, the problems arising are big and as a country and region, we need to adjust”, Jashari emphasized.
He reminded that old problems had not been solved, yet we find ourselves faced with digital transformation and changes in the geopolitical context. Therefore, as a country, we need to work quite fast to embrace the challenges.
Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia are already experiencing cyberattacks aimed at destabilization of the countries. Thus, we must understand that these attacks will not cease and we will be facing them constantly.
“We must preserve security, but avoid creating technophobia. We should not be afraid of technology,” Jashari stressed.
He also added that Metamorphosis Foundation invested efforts in a project supported by Google, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands, the Embassy of the United Kingdom and the European Union as a response to all challenges tackled by this years conference, and not just for the country, but also for the countries of the region.