Cyber-attacks more likely than water crises, as serious as pollution: WEF

Cyber-attacks have outrated nearly every other type of threat in a risk assessment published by the World Economic Forum, reiterating the importance of proactive security measures over the next 10 years.

The <i>Global Risks 2012</i> report evaluated a range of risk factors to arrive at some assumptions about the types of risks organisations will face over the next decade. While there weren't as many technological risks identified as economic, environmental, geopolitical or societal risks, those that made the list were seen as significant.

Cyber-attacks were seen to be as risky as systemic corruption, mismanaged urbanisation and nearly as risky as terrorism, food shortages and recurring liquidity crises. They were also gauged to be the fourth most-likely risk factor out of 50 analysed, making them just slightly less likely than rising greenhouse gas emissions and on par with water supply crises.

Also recognised in the analysis were technological risks such as critical systems failure – which was considered to have as high an impact as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and nearly as bad as a major systemic financial failure.

The report collates the responses of 469 experts from industry, government, academia and civil society, and arranges the various risk factors in a relative matrix to paint an overall picture of technological and other types of threats.

By looking at the overall threat picture in this way, the report was able to pick out three of what it calls "constellations of risks": the 'seeds of dystopia', ' how safe are our safeguards?' and 'The dark side of connectivity'.

"The constellation of risks arising from emerging technologies, financial interdependence, resource depletion and climate change exposes the weak and brittle nature of existing safeguards," the report warns. "Our safeguards may no longer be fit to manage vital resources and ensure orderly markets and public safety."

That one of the three key scenarios should revolve around connectivity and technology, reflects the growing role that such ecosystems are playing in broader risk scenarios. At the centre of the risk scenario is the risk of critical systems failure, which is seen as the linchpin of other serious technological events.

"Hyper-connectivity is a reality," the report's authors warn. "With over five billion mobile phones coupled with internet connectivity and cloud-based applications, daily life is more vulnerable to cyber threats and digital disruptions…. Online security is now considered a public good, implying an urgent need to encourage greater private sector engagement to reduce the vulnerability of key information technology systems."

Interestingly, another technological-related risk that ranked highly in the 2007 survey – Breakdown of Critical Information Infrastructure – had dropped out of the top five this year, supplanted by financial imbalances, greenhouse gas emissions, water supply crises, cyber-attacks and other risks.

This suggests a growing confidence in the remediation efforts of cyber-security authorities – or growing complacency by the surveyed experts, who tended to rank technological risks as being of lower impact and likelihood than non-technology assessments.

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