In The Interest Of Security

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 30 March, 2017.

Whenever we access the internet, we rely on information security. In particular, we all rely on a subsystem of the internet we hardly pay any attention to – the Domain Name System. As it happens, computers are not quite as enamoured as you and I are for pesky human-readable words. They’d rather depend on numbers. And thus, most websites on the internet have a numerical address – to go to Google’s web page, for example, you can just type in your web browser, and voila! You’re there! 

Needless to say, remembering strings of numbers is quite taxing, and that’s why the Domain Name System exists. You type in ‘’, and a domain name server will be queried with your request. It then returns the numerical internet protocol address for the web site you’re trying to visit. Quite crucial, wouldn’t you say, for easy access to the internet.

We trust the domain name system implicitly. When we type in a web address, we trust it will take us to the site we are trying to reach – whether that be Facebook, or online banking facilities. So consider this: What if the Domain Name System was compromised? What if someone were to rewrite this global phone book of the internet, and when you type in the address for your bank, it returns a different site? Similar looking, but designed to capture your online banking details, and empty your account? 

This question, naturally, has haunted the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as well. They are the non-profit organization responsible for co-ordinating and maintaining the DNS, ensuring its stable and secure operation. They operate the 13 root name servers that provide the authoritative addresses for all top-level domains. To use ‘’ as an example, your computer asks the root name server where to find information on ‘.com’. The root name server directs your computer to the verified ‘.com’ directory service, which will instruct it where to find the directory service for ‘’, and the directory service will provide the final address for ‘’.

The root name server is thus the first link in the chain to direct you to the correct website, and the authenticity of its information is critical to maintain a secure and stable internet. And so, ICANN devised a system to ensure the root name servers can be trusted. They signed these records with an asymmetric cryptographic key. Now, usually cryptography work via symmetric keys – you’d know it as a password. Someone encrypts something with a password, then you can only open that information if you know the password as well. 

Asymmetric keys work a bit differently. They have a public key and a private key. The public key can be shared far and wide, while the private key is held in secret – shared with no one. When something is encrypted with the private key, the public key can decrypt it, while if something is encrypted with the public key, only the private key can decrypt it. Thus, when you sign something with a private key, it can be trusted to only come from you, since the public key can decrypt it, and no one else knows the private key that can be used to create such a message. Conversely, when you encrypt something with the public key, you can be sure that only someone with the private key will be able to open it. 

Every chain in the DNS system thus signs their records, and to ensure you know its secure, their public key is signed by the layer above. But as you travel upwards, you reach a level where a key cannot be signed by anyone above – the root key. The master key of the entire system. The private key that signs that all other public keys so you can be sure they’re genuine. The private key that has to be kept safe at all costs. 

And so, ICANN has kept them secure. In two facilities, 4 000 km apart, there sits 2 specialized devices called a Hardware Security Modules. In their rooms, no electrical signals can come in or out. Building security guards are barred, as are cleaners. These rooms are surrounded by multiple layers of physical security such as building guards, cameras, monitored cages and safes. These modules resist physical tampering - if someone attempts to open the device or even drops it, the HSM erases all the keys it stores to prevent compromise.

The Hardware Security Modules are used to generate and store the root key, but to use them, physical keys are needed that must be inserted into the module. Fourteen Trusted Community Representatives, the Cryptographic Officers from across the globe, have a physical key that is used to access a smartcard stored in a safety deposit box that is used during the key ceremony to activate the HSM, seven for each location. Seven more Trusted Community Representatives, Recovery Key Share Holders, each have a smart card containing a fragment of the code needed to build a replacement Hardware Security Module in case all four are destroyed. Once a year, these Recovery Key Holders have to send ICANN a photograph of themselves with that day’s newspaper and their key to confirm all is well. 

Whenever they meet to generate a new key, they pass stringent security measures, requiring them to pass through two doors that each require a smartcard, pin code and a hand scan in sequence. Only then do their keys have any purpose, as outside the facility the keys cannot be used to access the root key. Only once they’ve all entered, and set up the machine, will the master key be generated, and a lengthy cryptographic code be produced. 

So whenever you find yourself typing in the address of a website, cast a thought for the level of security that is behind your simply query of the Domain Name System. And ask yourself, if others are willing to invest this much effort to ensure your information security, how much are you willing to invest? Because security comes not only from without, but from within as well. ICANN’s measures are of no use to you if your own passwords are insecure.

For Budget And Country

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 16 March, 2017.

It’s been a year since Minister Calle Schlettwein last presented his Budget Statement to parliament, and what a year it has been. The economy had taken blow after blow – first from the commodity price crash, then the effects of the drought, then from the global economy struggling in light of political upheaval in advanced economies… the list goes on.

It should then be no surprise that the Namibian economy found itself struggling this year. By now, the estimate for 2016’s growth has dropped to only 1%, with growth for 2017 being revised downwards to 2.5%. As a result, Namibia found itself not only facing a slowing economy, but with sliding confidence, also a lack of liquidity. It is in this climate that Minister Schlettwein had to prepare and present his Budget Statement for the next year. So let’s take a look at what he presented:

Let’s start at the top, with government revenues. In total, the government expects to receive about N$ 56.4 billion from various sources, down from N$ 57 billion last year (later reduced to N$ 51.5 billion by mid-year), reflecting Namibia’s difficult situation. N$ 53.3 billion will be from taxes, with N$ 19.2 billion from income taxes – as paid by us every year, and paid by the various companies operating in Namibia. Another N$ 34.1 billion is collected via indirect taxes, like VAT, that you pay when purchasing products or importing products, and transfer duties and property taxes. Then an additional N$ 2.6 billion is raised from other sources, such as dividends and profit shares from government investments and interest of loans and investments, royalties on minerals mined, and fines and administration fees. 

So far, so good. It seems quite prudent, given the state of the economy, and it seems the government is not making the mistake of over-estimating its revenues again, and having to adjust it as they did during last year. So, let us take a look at the expenditure now. Minister Schlettwein’s budget indicates that the government intends to spend N$ 62.5 billion this year. How is this allocated?

As usual, the biggest expense is the N$ 12.0 billion is budgeted for Basic Education. It has been noted that education is the greatest equaliser, and the Namibian government is certainly striving toward it, as government spending on education dwarfs other spending by a significant amount. In fact, Namibia is one of only three countries in the world where education is the top spending priority for government. An additional N$ 3.1 billion is budgeted for Higher Education, Training and Innovation.

Health and Social Services receive N$ 6.4 billion in the budget, and N$ 3.3 billion goes to the Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare.  The budget increases the old age pension grant to N$ 1 200 per month, allowing our oldest and most vulnerable of citizens to be placed above the national poverty line. The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Safety and Security receive N$ 5.6 billion and N$ 5.0 billion respectively. Together, the abovementioned ministries receive more than 50% of the budget. 

The rest of the ministries are funded by the remainder, as well as several infrastructure development programme, which inter alia include the rehabilitation of the national railway, the on-going expansion of the Port of Walvis Bay, several national roads water and storage infrastructure, the Mass Land Serving Programme and increased funding to the Public Financial Institutions for private sector support and SME development.

As you may have noticed, our government expenditures exceed our revenue – this is what is called our budget deficit. This year, however, it only amounts to 3.6% of GDP, in contrast to the 6.3% of last year. This is due to the fiscal consolidation stance taken by the Ministry of Finance to maintain our macroeconomic stability and sovereign credit rating of our bonds. As a result of the prudent budgeting, only N$ 6.1 billion worth of debt funding will have to be raised by government this year. 

This was achieved by reducing unproductive capital spend and non-core recurrent spending, while refocusing expenditures to national development priorities. This enabled government to cap our national debt at 42%, which otherwise would have ballooned to 46%, and put pressure on our finances via debt servicing costs, as well as jeopardised our credit rating, which was already downgraded to outlook negative last year. 

With the economy just starting to rebound, and only expected to recover to 2.5%, policies to improve domestic resilience, economic and market diversification, regional integration and national competitiveness are of primary importance for Namibia, especially in the light of several large completion projects that has reduced our investment rates to more realistic levels. 

The coming year will be an unconventional one. In contrast to the previous decades, the geopolitical shifts towards protectionist policies and away from multilateralism and globalization could slow global growth and trade. Namibia’s inflation has just reached new highs, while our currency has strengthened again after weakening last year. This indicates that we might experience trade problems going forward, especially if the commodity price recovery does not continue as envisaged.  

This budget, at least, should give some reassurance that the government is keeping its eye on the ball, and positioning itself against adverse conditions, while simultaneously attempting to put the country on the right footing for rapid growth should the opportunity present itself. Still, this quick summary is no replacement for your own – every citizen should avail themselves of the documents as presented on the Ministry of Finance website, and make their own assessment. It is our duty to keep the government accountable and transparent. Namibia expects every man and woman to do his/her duty.

The Empress

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 9 March, 2017.

In the year 500 CE, a woman was born. Her name was Theodora. History has forgotten the place, with claims being made for Cyprus and Syria, but that is not important. She was the daughter of Acacius, a bear trainer in the hippodrome (or colosseum) in Constantinople (today knowns as Istanbul). At the age of four, however, her father died, and her mother took her and her sisters to the hippodrome to work.

Thus, at the age of 5, she became an actress, a mime, a dancer, an artist, a comedienne and a prostitute. To be an ‘actress’ in those days was not a savoury occupation, but she performed well. By the age of 14, she had her first child. It is said that her performances at the hippodrome were close to the extremes of modern burlesque, and her salacious portrayal of Leda and the Swan brought her many admirers. 

At age 16, she became the mistress of Hecebolus, and accompanied him to his post as governor of Libya at the age of 18. When they broke up, she started travelling back to Constantinople, and at Alexandria in Egypt, she converted to Christianity. From there, she continued onwards, first to Antioch in Syria, and reaching Constantinople in 522 CE. She gave up her previous lifestyle, and became a wool spinner in a house near the palace. 

Given her beauty and wit, it should be no surprise that she drew the attention of a young Justinian. Justinian, son of a pig farmer, had moved to Constantinople at age 11 after being adopted by his uncle Justin, a member of the Royal Guard. But 4 years before, Justin had been appointed Emperor of the Roman Empire after the previous emperor had died without an heir.  Justinian was quite taken with Theodora, but the law forbid anyone of high position in the Empire from marrying an actress, even if she was a former one.

Justin’s wife, the Empress Euphemia, who ordinary did not refuse Justinian anything, was dead set against this marriage. But in 525 CE, she died, and Justinian got his uncle Justin to repeal the law, and he married Theodora. Two years later, the Emperor Justin I died as well, and Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora was crowned. 

Theodora shared in Justinian’s plan and political strategies, and he referred to her as his ‘partner in his deliberations.’ Theodora had her own court, entourage and imperial seal. In 532 CE, however, she showed her mettle. During the Nika riots, when opposing factions had proclaimed a new emperor, Justinian was fearing for his life, and preparing to flee. While discussing this at their government council, Theodora interrupted them, and said, 

“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”

Her speech convinced Justinian to make a stand, and he attacked the hippodrome, where the rioters had congregated, killing all 30 000 of them. Justinian never forgot that it was Theodora who saved his throne. Afterwards, they rebuilt Constantinople, which had burned in the riots. One result of this was the Hagia Sophia, one of the architectural wonders of the world. They carefully supervised the magistrates, to reduce corruption. But Theodora did not stop there.

Justinian recodified Roman law, into the Corpus Juris Civilis, and Theodora took the time to pass much needed reform. She passed laws to increase the rights of women, prohibited forced prostitution, she closed brothels and made pimping illegal. She expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, and instituted the death penalty for rape. She gave mother guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of wives who committed adultery. 

But on 28 June 548 CE, Theodora succumbed to cancer. Justinian wept bitterly at her funeral, and after her death, he passed very little effective legislation. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and to this day is considered a saint by the Greek Orthodox Church. 

Theodora was but one woman, from very lowly beginning, and yet she achieved so much. In the wake of International Woman’s Day, it is perhaps time that we realise that that same power is inside every woman around us. These Empresses in ordinary clothing looked after farms and children, while their men were off working at the far edges of our country during the contract labour era. 

Even today, they keep the communal farms going, teaching the children, while their husbands are off working wherever they find it. In a country with such reverence for heroes – in a country with a Heroes Acre! – why is it then that these heroes of our country are not venerated with a single monument?