Financial inclusion and cybersecurity in the digital age

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Managing Director International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva

By Kristalina Georgieva

Let me start today with two key facts. First: on average, 106 people gain access to the Internet in sub-Saharan Africa every second.

Second: hackers attack computers with Internet access an average of once every 39 seconds.

Think about that

If these statistics holds true, in just a minute of me speaking over 6,000 people would gain access to the Internet in sub-Saharan Africa. This is great news. But somewhere, someone is under a cyber attack, with another one just about to hit.

This brings me to a very important point: COVID-19 accelerates our digital advancements, and opportunities are multiplying at an even faster pace. But so are the risks. And if we want to harness the great power of technology to lift people up, we need to deal effectively with the threats that can bring technology down and harm lives and livelihoods.

This matters tremendously for financial inclusion, an area where the digital transformation creates so many opportunities. Financial inclusion is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight poverty and lift up living standards. It is also crucial for empowering women.

The good news is that we have already made some great strides toward financial inclusion.

An additional 1.2 billion adults worldwide have gotten access to a bank account since 2011. Today, 69 percent of adults have an account.

But while we have made progress, much remains to be done.

Close to one-third of adults—1.7 billion are still unbanked. About half of unbanked people include women from poor households in rural areas or out of the workforce.

Increasingly, it is digital financial services that we are turning to in order to close these gaps and bring finance to the most vulnerable.

But just as we are becoming more reliant on digital financial services, the number of cyberattacks is growing. In fact, attacks have tripled over the last decade, and financial services continue to be the most targeted industry. Attackers target large and small institutions, rich and poor countries, and operate without borders.

These cyber-threats can have a grave impact on financial stability — the subject of a Staff Discussion Note the IMF has just published this week: “Cyber Risk and Financial Stability: It’s a Small World After All.” And in threatening financial stability, cyber attacks can also deny people the benefits of financial inclusion.

For example, what if a cyber attack takes a bank down and a remittance doesn’t go through? What if a mobile money app is hacked and a family cannot get a cash transfer they need to pay for food?

So make no mistake: in this digital world, efforts to expand financial inclusion and strengthen cybersecurity must go hand in hand.

What can we do?

First, of course, make digital financial inclusion a top priority as we recover from this pandemic.

Digital financial innovations can open up new possibilities for people around the world.

There is more demand for digital financial services, and more opportunities for financial inclusion – mobile money apps, for example, become even more relevant when social distancing is necessary. Those should be made as broadly available as possible to everyone, everywhere. Prioritizing development finance for digitalization and financial inclusion is paramount if we want to prevent the danger of a more unequal world.

Second, we need to build a safe, secure, and robust system that supports digital financial inclusion.

Nowhere are there more possibilities for damaging disruptions from cyberattacks than in the financial sector – a highly interconnected network where important transactions are happening rapidly among many different actors, and where trust is critical. A major cyberattack could seriously threaten financial stability.

And third: we must work together.

Over the years, each of our respective institutions have placed significant emphasis on these different areas – both financial inclusion and cybersecurity. But we cannot fulfill these core objectives in silos. That is a big reason we are having this workshop — to bring together all the relevant stakeholders to share our knowledge and enhance our collaboration.

As I conclude, I am reminded of an old saying: a ship is safe in harbor. But that’s not what ships are made for.

Of course, there is a balance. You would not keep your ship in harbor – but you also would not sail it deliberately into unsafe waters. And you should build it so that it is strong and resilient.

The more we develop technologies, the more we will see great risks. But we should not let that stop us from doing so – from using it to make people’s lives better and bring opportunity to the most vulnerable. Instead, we can find a balance between advancing the technologies that facilitate financial inclusion – and ensuring these are safe, secure, and effectively regulated.

Working together, we can do it.

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