Samoan cybersecurity expert focuses on women in tech

Samoa, the new owners of not one but two high-speed undersea internet cables, boasts some of the region's fastest and most reliable internet. 

But as its leaders have been quick to remind people, that luxury also comes with the looming threat of cyber-attacks.

Those risks are something Tagiilima Neemia, a mother of two from Vaitele-Fou, is taking very seriously. So seriously that she enrolled in a Masters of Cyber Security at the prestigious Australian university the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (R.M.I.T.)

She graduated this month from the two-year Master's programme under the auspices of the Australian Awards scholarship initiative.

She is back in Samoa to return to her job at the Ministry of Finance as a Business Data Analyst.

But she hope to do much more than her job description.


Her 10-year-old daughter Aurora's success in building a game application during a three-day Code Camp in Sydney showed her just how much children might achieve if they can be given the right guidance.

“It was just a three-day programme, but she came back and was so proud of what she did, I was so proud of her,” Ms. Neemia said.

Now, with the help of co-founder and chief executive officer of Girl Geek Academy Sarah Moran on board, Ms. Neemia hopes to create a programme for girls and their mothers to learn to code here in Samoa.

Her vision is a school holiday or weekend programme where young girls learn to code but alongside their mothers. That way they have a guaranteed support person at home who can help them, but also see their progress and watch their skillset grow.

“You can see the capability of your child, you can see wow, she’s so good at this. So you know where to invest, you can pay for something better to improve your child’s skills,” Ms. Neemia said.

She is hoping to build on the concept of Digicel’s Coder Dojo’s programme, but to focus specifically on women and girls.

Ms. Neemia met Girl Geek Academy’s Sarah Moran through the Australian Women’s Leadership Initiative programme that she joined while in Melbourne on her scholarship. It was then she started growing her idea for a girls' coding camp.

“I had been focused on the older generation, until I thought it’s good to start with the young,” she said. 

When Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi’s launched the National Security Policy and Strategy in November 2018, cyber security was top of mind, especially with “vast improvement in IT infrastructure.

“Our cyberspace needs to be guarded against faceless perpetrators,” Tuilaepa said.

Ms. Neemia agrees. 

“With technology, you need to be updated with what goes on around the world. Every day there is a new thing coming, and that is why there is no system that is 100 per cent secure,” she said.

“We may think we are secure but once an attacker finds just one vulnerability to get into our system, that is it, that is all it takes for some.”

No one is immune from cyber-attacks such as ransomware, spam and e-mail scams, not even Samoa’s own Government Ministries. Being able to improve cyber safety to protect the systems of the Government is essential, Ms. Neemia said.

But more important maybe than security systems is public awareness into how to be safe online. Without national understanding of what cyber-attacks look like people are not able to protect themselves from them.

That extends to helping children using the internet, and more closely monitoring their use.

If parents don’t understand to put controls on these devices and monitor them, that is a risk as well that could lead to cyber bullying, or viruses,” Ms. Neemia said.

“If your kid wants to use the computer to do some research, a parent has to be sitting there to ensure this is exactly what they are doing […]They need to see what their children do online. They should go over the history and see what their children access.”

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