Cyber attacks may seem less tangible than earthquakes, cyclones, or acts of terrorism, but they are pervasive, damaging, and must be taken seriously. The recent World Economic Forum Report on Global Risks for 2018 lists cyber attacks as the third most likely risk, behind extreme weather events and natural disasters. Cyber attacks were ranked sixth in terms of impact (with weapons of mass destruction at No 1, and water crises at No 5).

Dr Joe Burton (University of Waikato) recently presented talks in Auckland and Wellington, examining the powerful impacts of cyber threats on New Zealand and around the world.

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The impact of cyber insecurity

An expert on cyber crime, cyber security, and other transnational security challenges at the University of Waikato, Dr Burton described this worldwide problem. Cyber crime is widespread, damaging, and costly. The global price tag of cyber crime is currently estimated to be $600 billion annually. It could jump to $6 trillion annually by 2021.

Despite these staggering numbers, many people, businesses, and organisations have failed to take adequate precautions and consequently are exposed to cyber attacks.

Cyber crime takes many forms. It includes the Russian hackers seeking to undermine the US democratic elections in 2016, and the Wannacry ransomware linked to North Korean hackers in 2017, which affected 230,000 computers in 150 countries, netted the hackers $140,000 in ransoms paid, and shut down two NHS hospitals in the UK.

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Dr Burton explained that cyber threats and crimes are fast moving. Cyber criminals are becoming more sophisticated, obtaining personal information through social media profiles and activities to develop personalised subversion tactics that can fool astute online users.

Energy generators and other critical infrastructure are increasingly being targeted by cyber criminals.

In addition, we use multiple, interconnected devices – from phones and tablets to at-home entertainment systems and even cars. The expansion of the Internet of Things (such as Internet-connected fridges or home security systems) further increases our vulnerability.

‘One in five Kiwis are affected annually by cyber crime, at an estimated cost to NZ of nearly $260 million in 2016. More than half of New Zealand businesses say they don’t have an incident response plan for cyber attacks. Yet, 40% of companies think it is likely they’ll experience some form of cyber crime in the next 24 months,’ Dr Burton posited.

How does NZ rank in the global fight against cyber crime?

Nonetheless, New Zealand is ranked among the top 10 countries in the world considered to be best prepared for cyber attacks. New Zealand boasts a number of cyber security initiatives to support this high global ranking. These include a National Cyber Security Centre and National Cyber Policy Unit; the Cortex programme of capabilities to counter cyberthreats to organisations of national significance; the establishment of the NZ Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT); and a NZ Cyber Skills Taskforce to address the shortage of cyber professionals in this country.

But New Zealand’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement of 2018 goes further. It states that the Defence Force ‘needs to be able to conduct a broader range of cyber operations’. Dr Burton’s view is that, before we go on the offensive, New Zealand needs to have a national conversation about the implications of such a move, and whether that is an approach we want to take.

The way forward: collaborate and communicate

Fundamentally, he says, the world needs to better collaborate and communicate in order to wage a meaningful battle against cyber insecurity. He identified a number of initiatives that are currently being considered internationally: signing the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention – The Convention on Cybercrime; the appointment of cyber ambassadors to engage with neighbouring countries and serve as UN advocates; the establishment of a Cyber Geneva Convention to help prevent cyberattacks on soft targets such as health care services; and the development of an international strategy around artificial intelligence.

Here at home, said Dr Burton, New Zealand needs strategies, collaborations among businesses, and a wide debate about our exposure to and risk of cyber insecurity. ‘We already have plenty of evidence of what can happen when these issues are not taken seriously.’

Videos of Dr Burton's full talk and two Need to Know conversations will be posted here soon.

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Watch the cyber security videos

Need to know: Cyber security - risks & opportunities for NZ businesses (11'13")

Need to know: Cyber security and NZ's place on the global stage (9'06")

Cyber security: what you need to know -full talk in Auckland by Dr Joe Burton (52'38")

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