A flurry of weekend cyberattacks on some of the most highly guarded digital assets on earth has again exposed the vulnerabilities inherent in our increasingly digitized global economy.
At a time when our nation’s secrets at the NSA and Homeland Security and assets at the Department of the Treasury were able to be illicitly tapped into by foreign hackers, the security and reliability of countless other online industries and enterprises have also been brought into question. And with Google down for more than an hour this morning (Dec. 14), it’s also worth asking: Could the internet actually crash?
Short answer: Not really. But while the benefits of the modern connected economy have been truly transformational, the fact that so many vital aspects of everyday life are dependent upon a fast and functioning internet is more than a little concerning. Whether it’s the power grid, banking and financial markets, transportation, communications or even the highly generalized “internet of things,” the list of digital inroads that penetrate our daily lives has never been higher.
Add in the fact that the entire planet is currently contending with an “unthinkable” global pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen in over 100 years, and the prospects of some sort of mass Cybergeddon start to look more plausible.
“Smart technologies have enormous potential to improve both human life and the health of the planet,” stated the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Wild Wide Web report. “However, many unintended consequences have also surfaced,” the study added, noting that “cyberattacks have become a common hazard for individuals and businesses.”
In fact, the latest WEF survey ranks cyberattacks as the seventh most likely risk, and the eighth-most impactful. At the same time, the influential NGO said cyberattacks were the second most concerning risk for doing business globally over the next 10 years.
Call for Global Action
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that planning and preparation and a coordinated global response are necessary to combat a truly global threat. In the case of cybersecurity, the United Nations’ 2019 Digital Economy Report made an unequivocal call for collective action.
“Digital advances have generated enormous wealth in record time, but that wealth has been concentrated around a small number of individuals, companies and countries,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote in a preface to the report.
While acknowledging the unprecedented speed and scale of benefits that the digital revolution has brought to lives and societies, he noted that the immense opportunities have also drawn the opposite concerns.
“We cannot take [these] positive outcomes for granted. We must urgently improve international cooperation if we are to achieve the full social and economic potential of digital technology, while avoiding unintended consequences,” Guterres said, noting the high stakes involved.
In working collaboratively to counter new cybersecurity risks that enable illegal economic activity or threaten personal privacy, the UN report said that “governments, civil society, academia, the scientific community and the technology industry must work together to find new solutions.”
Not All Bad
If you accept the premise that acknowledging a problem is the first step toward solving it, it could be argued that a string of high-profile cyberattacks – including the most recent ones in Washington, D.C. – has at the very least focused the world’s awareness on this growing problem. And it has also raised that nagging question about a total crash.
For example, Beth Johnson, managing director of risk management company Team Umbrella, said the good news is that digital infrastructure is now so important, diverse and complex that the chance of the power grid going down in the U.K. due to aging infrastructure is far greater than from an external cyberattack.
“The real risk is underlying infrastructure failure. England’s power grid is much more open to risk than Google or Amazon’s globe-spanning empire,” Johnson said.
That said, the case for global preparedness was briefly under assault on the very same morning that the world was trying to get its head around the latest attacks on the U.S. government. This as more than a dozen of Google’s widely-used services – including Gmail, YouTube, Drive, Classroom and more – were offline for around an hour.
While a company statement from Google blamed the multinational disruption on an “internal storage issue” – and not a cyberattack – if nothing else, the coincidental timing and breadth of the outage underscored how quickly things can change when our vital online systems suddenly and inexplicably don’t work.