Barclays vs Dahabshiil: when a Somali money transfer company takes on a banking giant

The Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil has won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company.

Yesterday, the Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company over money-laundering fears. It’s hard to underestimate how significant this decision will prove for ordinary Somalis. Every year, British Somalis send around ₤500m home to relative and friends, and for many in Somalia, this is their primary source of income.

Overall the Somali diaspora send around $1.3bn home annually, and as years of civil conflict have left the country’s economy and banking sector in tatters, remittances are worth around 50 per cent of Somalia’s economy.

The main money transfer companies, like Western Union, which in 2012 was responsible for global money transfers of $72bn, do not operate in Somalia. Barclays is the only bank still offering services to small operators like Dahabshiil. If Barclays had been allowed to sever ties with Dahabshiil the effect for ordinary Somalis would be much greater than the cutting of all UK aid to Somalia: DfID pledged to deliver 63m in aid in 2012/13. No wonder the campaign to preserve this Somali lifeline has attracted high-profile supporters, including Mo Farah.

If Barclays had succeeded in cutting its relationship with Dahabshiil, this might have absolved it of responsibility to implement tough money-laundering checks, but it wouldn’t have stopped money flowing from the UK to groups like Al-Shabab. Removing formal channels would only force Somalis to rely on more expensive, less reliable informal money transfer agents. British-Somalis would find it harder to send money home, and UK authorities would struggle to monitor cash flows into Somalia.

Unfortunately, Dahabshiil was only granted extra time, and next year there will be new hearings to determine if it can still use Barclay’s services. Millions of Somalis may breathe a sigh of relief, but this problem isn't over yet.

A Somali money changer. Remittances from abroad make up half of the country's economy. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.