Cyberthreats are rising up the list of the most prominent concerns facing the world – so much so that, in terms of perceived likelihood, they sit behind only some environmental risks, a survey in the Global Risks Report 2018 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has revealed.
The Global Risks Perception Survey 2017–2018, which underpins the report published annually, showed that large-scale cyberattacks are now seen as the third most likely global risk for the world over the next ten years, surging from the sixth place in the survey’s previous edition. Only extreme weather events and natural disasters are now ranked higher.
The threat of ‘data fraud or theft’ followed suit, rising to the fourth most likely risk from fifth last year. The report was released on January 17 in anticipation of the forum’s meeting beginning in Davos, Switzerland, on January 23.
In a similar vein, the risk of cyberattacks is now ranked sixth in terms of impact after not registering in the top-ten list at all last year.
Now, with some of the key stats out of the way, let us explore what lies behind them.
The latest survey marks a shift from optimism regarding technological risks in the previous years. The heightened levels of worry come on the back of an escalation in cybersecurity threats, which, as noted by the WEF, are growing in prevalence and in disruptive potential alike.
Cybersecurity breaches have nearly doubled in five years and are increasingly eating into the budgets of organizations, according to the report. “Some of the largest costs in 2017 related to ransomware attacks”, reads the report, which also references a 2017 study by Accenture that calculated the cost of responding to cyberattacks at $11.7 million per company. This represents a year-on-year increase of more than 27%.
In this context, two notorious meltdowns that shook 2017 stand out – attacks involving ransomware variants known also as WannaCryptor and Diskcoder.C. The number of data records exposed in breaches has also been rising dramatically, as has the frequency and persistence of distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS).
“The heightened levels of worry come on the back of an escalation in cybersecurity threats”
Malicious cybertools are also being increasingly deployed with the aim of harming critical infrastructure and strategic systems, resulting in the threat of a widespread disruption of essential services and loss of life. Most such attacks have failed, but isolated successes of these incursions together with rising numbers of attempted attacks make for a heightened risk, according to the report.
Another source of risk emanating from (not only) these types of cyber-assaults – particularly if believed to involve nation-state actors – is that they may trigger retaliation and an escalatory chain of unpredictable consequences. The absence of “ground rules for cyberwarfare” and the inherent difficulty in tracing cyberattacks to their source only heighten the risk further.
As the world is becoming ever more cyber-dependent and the pace of change is accelerating, we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to “radical and irreversible systemic shocks”, said the WEF. “Rising cyber-dependency is ranked as the second most significant driver shaping the global risks landscape over the next 10 years,” reads the study.
Noting the resurgence of darknet markets and the churn of new malware variants by the cybercrime underground, the report goes on to highlight a dramatic increase in the number of potential victims, thus echoing some of its previous concerns. The use of cloud services continues to expand, and the Internet-of-Things ecosystem is estimated to explode from around 8.4 billion devices in 2017 to 20.4 billion in 2020.
In the grand scheme of things
The respondents are growing more pessimistic overall, notwithstanding the unprecedented technological, scientific and financial resources enjoyed by our generation. Partly to blame is the “deteriorating geopolitical landscape”, as an overwhelming majority of the respondents foresee worsening in political or economic confrontations between major powers.
“Cybersecurity breaches have nearly doubled in five years and are increasingly eating into the budgets of organizations”
Importantly, environmental threats have grown across the board in the survey and continue to dominate the risk landscape. Economic risks, for their part, have ebbed in prominence, largely thanks to improving economic indicators. In fact, according to the WEF, the upbeat economic prospects for this year give leaders a “golden opportunity to address signs of severe weakness in many of the complex systems that underpin our world”. However, greater “depth of collaboration” is required.
Nearly 1,000 experts and decision-makers from around the world were asked last September and October to identify and rate what they believe are the greatest risks to the globe over the next 10 years. The respondents work mainly in business, academia, NGOs, international organizations, and government. Almost two-thirds of the total pool of respondents hailed from Europe and North America.
Author Tomáš Foltýn, ESET