Is Cambodia Up to Standard in Cybersecurity?

Ma Raksa is an AI & data science enthusiast and senior student in the Information and Communications Technology program at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP). Photo provided

PHNOM PENH – Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have gained a huge number of headlines around the globe. Its ability to create more complex works has led many experts and ordinary people to study and evaluate its pros and cons. It makes no doubt that in the not-so-far future, these technologies will play a crucial role in our societies.

One has thus the right to wonder: How ready is Cambodia in terms of cybersecurity?

Ma Raksa, an AI & data science enthusiast and senior student in the Information and Communications Technology program at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP), told Cambodianess about his views on the matter. He also presented the PUTHI program, a newly-launched campaign aimed to combat misinformation and disinformation in Cambodia, which helps shape the cybersecurity landscape in the country.

Ky Chamna: Technology has become increasingly important in our day-to-day life, for better and for worse. Is Cambodia taking cybersecurity matters seriously enough?

Ma Raksa: Cybersecurity is a global concern, and every country needs to be prepared to face the challenges that come with the increasing technological advancements, especially with the recent popularity of ChatGPT. Like many other countries, Cambodia has recognized the importance of cybersecurity and has taken steps toward improving its cybersecurity infrastructure, but it takes time and effort. One example of it can be the new Cybersecurity Law that is under development and in its final stage. It will be Cambodia’s first-ever legal text on the subject. It will criminalize a range of cyber activities, including hacking, phishing, and work in identifying thefts. The law will also provide a legal framework for addressing cybersecurity incidents and protecting critical infrastructure.

Workshop at the American University of Phnom Penh. Photo: Van William Meng

The government also established the National Authority for Combating Cybercrime (the Department of Anti-Cybercrime) in 2015 to prevent, detect and investigate cybercrimes.

However, despite these efforts, Cambodia faces several challenges in responding to cybersecurity. One major challenge is the lack of cybersecurity awareness among the general public and the private sector. Many individuals and organizations are not aware of the potential risks and threats associated with using technology, making them vulnerable to cyber-attacks. This follows the concept of “A chain is as strong as its weakest link”. Another challenge is the shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals in the country. Cambodia has a limited pool of cybersecurity experts, making it difficult for the government and private organizations to build a strong cybersecurity workforce.

It is worth noting that cybersecurity is an ongoing battle and requires continued efforts to stay ahead of cyber threats. It is not only about having the right policies and regulations in place. But also about having a strong cybersecurity culture and workforce that can respond quickly and effectively to any cybersecurity incidents.

In terms of whether Cambodia is working quickly enough to meet the demand in responding to cybersecurity, it ultimately depends on various factors such as cybersecurity readiness, the nature and severity of cyber threats, and the resources available to tackle them. At the end of the day, cybersecurity is a global issue and all countries must work together to tackle cyber threats effectively.

Ky Chamna: Assuming cybersecurity is still a concerning issue for Cambodian society, how interested is the youth, let’s say age between 15 to 25, in learning to protect their internet footprint?

Ma Raksa: From my observation, there is a growing awareness among young people about the importance of cybersecurity. The increasing use of technology and social media has made them vulnerable to cyber threats, and many are now taking steps to protect their online presence.

The Cambodian government and other organizations, like the PUTHI campaign, have launched cybersecurity awareness campaigns aiming at educating young people on the risks of cyber threats and how to protect themselves online. The PUTHI campaign was launched on Feb. 15, 2023, and includes workshops, seminars, and online training courses targeting university students.

Also, a few schools and universities in Cambodia have started offering courses and programs on cybersecurity to prepare their students with the necessary skills and knowledge to protect themselves online. For instance, the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP) is currently offering a course called “Introduction to Information Technology” to every major. Students get to learn about how computers work, the evolution of the Internet, get the basis of cybersecurity awareness, and many skills that teach them to protect their digital presence in this digital era. For IT majors, AUPP also established more advanced courses in cybersecurity. It is essential to understand that cybersecurity training must be aligned with professional training and certifications. It cannot be simply taught as an academic class.

This being said, I think it is difficult to generalize the level of interest among Cambodian youth in learning about cybersecurity. However, there is some evidence that people, mostly young ones, are becoming increasingly aware. This is a positive trend. But it is essential to keep investing in cybersecurity awareness and education to ensure the young workforce is equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to protect themselves online. And this is exactly what the PUTHI campaign is doing.

Workshop at the American University of Phnom Penh. Photo: Van William Meng

Ky Chamna: If cybersecurity education were not to become widespread as fast as the evolution of technology, what kind of problem would society face?

Ma Raksa: If cybersecurity education does not penetrate the minds of young people fast enough, we may be in front of a scenario where you build a skyscraper before building strong foundations. Not only are you sitting on vulnerability, but you are also placing yourself, and others, in danger. Cybercriminals could exploit any vulnerability to steal sensitive information, commit fraud, and engage in other malicious activities. This is already happening in Cambodia, every day, also now as we are talking.

The lack of cybersecurity awareness and required skills among young people is not only endangering them, and the organizations or institutions they work with or for, but is also posing a threat to the vision and plans of the government. As technology continues to evolve, the demand for cybersecurity professionals is expected to increase. However, if young people are not equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue careers in cybersecurity, it could lead to a shortage of cybersecurity professionals, making it difficult for organizations to protect themselves against cyber threats.

Ky Chamna: Internet access, smart devices, and social media have taken their stance more firmly in Cambodia’s countryside, especially with teenagers. However, with the educational gap and the lack of English language in use, do you think cybersecurity training in the countryside still has a long way to go? How can this be addressed?

Ma Raksa: The increasing use of internet access, smart devices, and social media among teenagers in the Cambodian countryside highlights even further the need for cybersecurity awareness and education in these areas. However, as you mentioned, the educational gap and lack of English language skills in the countryside could pose a challenge to delivering effective cybersecurity training. This is actually an interesting point to make. You would think that the English language and cybersecurity don’t share much in common. But the vast majority of training, also free, certification and open access resources are in English. How can you learn (also for free, I want to highlight it) if you cannot read and understand English? This is important to understand.

To address the issue in a short period, I truly believe that it is essential to develop cybersecurity training programs that are accessible and tailored to the specific needs of the countryside communities, also addressing the language barrier. Customizing training for local communities may involve developing training programs in local languages, using simple and easy-to-understand language, and incorporating practical examples and case studies relevant to the community. For example, the PUTHI campaign is developing an online course in Khmer language and we use simple terms that people can understand easily. We need to be effective, not just appear smart.

Furthermore, engaging local communities, particularly parents and educators, is important to raise cybersecurity awareness and promote safe online practices. This could include organizing workshops and seminars on cybersecurity, creating educational materials, and partnering with local organizations and community leaders to promote cybersecurity awareness. Due to time constraints and limitations, currently, our PUTHI Campaign is not conducting workshops in the provinces, however, with our online course anyone on the internet could freely access it anytime.

Another approach could be to leverage technology to deliver cybersecurity training to the countryside communities. This could involve developing mobile apps or online training courses that are accessible through smart devices and available in local languages. Such efforts could be supported by the government, private sector organizations, and international partners to ensure that we can reach as many people as possible.

Ky Chamna: Since the launch of the PUTHI campaign, how much has it contributed to back the demand for cybersecurity? What are some of the future training that you hope to offer for your target audiences?

Ma Raksa: PUTHI was born as a campaign that brings awareness of cybercrimes to first-year university students with support from Google and in partnership with the ASEAN Foundation as a part of the ASEAN Digital Literacy Program (ASEAN DLP). In two months, the campaign has established one basic cyber security course and four workshops at different universities in Phnom Penh.

We have created an online course that provides the public with a basic understanding of cybercrimes and how to protect their digital presence. The course is conducted in Khmer and lasts one and a half hours. We are really proud of our two instructors from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and a private company – which wishes not to be named – who spent their valuable time volunteering to create this amazing course. Currently, the course is being reviewed and will be launched soon.

In addition, another part of our campaign has been focused on launching workshops at different universities. The workshop is under the topic of “Understanding cybercrimes” and is delivered by professionals working in Cybersecurity. So far, we have launched a physical booth promotion and a workshop successfully at AUPP with almost 100 people involved. We have also conducted workshops at the University of Puthisastra and CamEd Business School.

Ky Chamna: The campaign’s team is only composed of young tech-savvy people. As a team leader, how did you assemble your team? What are the challenges that you or your team faced during this formation?

Ma Raksa: I started my team by reaching out to people around me and convincing them about this project and its importance. The main challenge I faced during the team formation stage was to convince them that “we could do it!”, and be able to persuade them to follow my vision. I am very lucky to have supportive friends, and supportive professors, and receive support from our partners. Currently, I have 11 core members with me as a project manager, 3 technical members, 6 marketing members, and 1 professional photographer. I would like to take this opportunity to show my deepest appreciation to our course instructors who dedicate their time voluntarily to help create our online course, and especially to my advisor who actively supports my campaign. We are also thankful to our partners, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, the American University of Phnom Penh, SnoopEdu, the Italian Cambodian Business Association, and Kakvi. Without our amazing team and partners, our project might not have reached the point it did.

Ky Chamna: How does it feel to be one of the only people and organizations who are trying to bring an answer to Cambodia’s cybersecurity challenges?

Ma Raksa: As a campaign manager representing my team, I would say we feel inspired and motivated by what we are doing and we are honored to take concrete steps to contribute to the government in raising awareness and educating the public about cybersecurity. We are glad to be part of the effort and from our experience, there are lots of areas of improvement and lots of opportunities for our youths to participate and contribute to making a change. At the end of the day, it’s always about teamwork, passion, and dedication that matters to us.

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