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Malawi: President vows not to pay ransom to passport system hackers

President Lazarus Chakwera

President Lazarus Chakwera

Malawi's government is not issuing passports, President Lazarus Chakwera said, claiming it is because of a cyberattack. But some observers question whether such an attack occurred.

Chakwera told parliament on Wednesday that a cyberattack had compromised the country’s security and that measures were in place to identify and apprehend the attackers. He said the attackers were demanding millions in ransom but his administration will not pay it.

He said the hackers have prevented the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services system from printing passports for the past three weeks. However, the immigration department stopped printing passports weeks ago, after it announced in January it was grappling with technical glitches.

The situation has left hundreds of passport applicants stranded. Rights groups have vowed to hold mass demonstrations if the glitch isn’t resolved within days. Then on Wednesday, Chakwera told parliament the suspension was caused by what he called digital mercenaries who had hacked the system responsible for printing passports.

“This is a serious national security breach," he said, "and although Malawi is not the first in the modern world to be the target of and suffer this kind of cyberattack, we have taken very decisive steps to regain control of the situation.”

Chakwera, who has been president since June 2020, said on Wednesday that he has given the immigration department three weeks to provide a temporary solution and resume the printing of passports. At the same event, he said he had told the hackers never to expect ransom from the Malawi government.

“As long as I am the president, the government will never pay the ransom money you have demanded after hacking the system," he said, "because we are not in the business of appeasing criminals with public money, nor are we in the business of negotiating with those who attack our country.”

Contract termination

Malawi has faced passport issuance challenges since 2021, when the government terminated its contract with Techno Brain, which had been the supplier of Malawi’s passports since 2019.

In 2023, the government, unable to find a replacement, re-engaged the company on a temporary basis. Still, the immigration department had to scale down production many times because of a shortage of materials or failure to pay outstanding bills.

Sylvester Namiwa is the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives, whose organization is vowing to hold protests if the situation isn’t resolved within days. He said that he doubted the veracity of Chakwera’s statement on the hacking of the system.

The president "should have revealed the identities of the hackers" and could have said more about how communications with the alleged hackers are occurring — "for example, if they are using computers, if they are using phones," Namiwa said. "Today’s technology is easy to trace.”

Namiwa pointed to reports circulating on social media and a local radio station suggesting that the contractor, Techno Brain, had deliberately shut down the system after noticing improper activity by suspected government agents. According to local media reports, Techno Brain is demanding millions of dollars in compensation from the Malawi government before it unblocks the system.

When approached for comment, Tiwonge Chipeta, general manager for Techno Brain in Malawi, would not deny or confirm the company’s alleged involvement in the shutdown, saying she could not speak with reporters about the matter.

However, some IT experts working with government agencies, who refused to give their names for fear of reprisals, said that no hackers had demanded any ransom from the government.

Security expert Sheriff Kaisi told VOA that if the passport system had indeed been hacked, Malawi’s government needed to ensure its software has since been made hacker-proof.

“There could be some lapses here and there, but every system by nature would have other software to encounter that," Kaisi said. "And of course the system used by the government needs to be sophisticated.”

Malawi Information minister Moses Nkukuyu told a local radio station Thursday that the information Chakwera presented in parliament came from experts working at the immigration department. Immigration department spokesperson Wellington Chiponde did not respond to calls and texts from VOA.

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