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What you need to know about cyber security - academic

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Cyber attacks may seem less tangible than extreme weather events or acts of terrorism, but they are pervasive, damaging and must be taken seriously.

With those cautionary words, Dr Joe Burton led a captivating - if sobering - talk about the impacts of cyber security in New Zealand and globally.

University of Waikato academic Dr Burton is an expert on regional responses to cyber security, cyber warfare and other transnational security challenges. Part of the NZ Institute for Security and Crime Science, his research interests span cyber security; information warfare; and science, technology, and international security.

Dr Burton highlighted a seemingly worldwide conundrum: from accusations of cyber subversion upsetting the US democratic election process, to the Wannacry ransomware hacking event in 2017, evidence of cyber "insecurity" is widespread and costly. Indeed, the price tag of cyber crime is currently $600 billion annually and is expected to jump to $6 trillion annually by 2021.

Why then, are so many people, businesses and organisations still at risk of exposure to cyber insecurity?

The answer is as complex and intangible as the incidents themselves. Dr Burton explained that cyber-related threats, attacks and incidents are by definition fast moving and innovative; strategies to mitigate or prevent such activities simply can’t keep up with the ever-changing approaches. Case in point: cybercriminals are becoming more and more sophisticated, obtaining personal information through social media profiles and activities to develop tailored subversion tactics that can fool even the most astute online user.

In addition, said Dr Burton, our growing use of multiple, interconnected devices - from phones and tablets to at-home entertainment systems and even cars - further increases our vulnerability to cyber subterfuge.

"More than half of New Zealand businesses say they don’t have an incident response plane for cyber attacks. Yet, 40% of companies think it is likely they’ll experience some form of cyber crime in the next 24 months," said Dr Burton.

Given these numbers, it is perhaps surprising that New Zealand is ranked among the top 10 countries in the world considered to be "cyber mature", or best prepared for cyber attacks. But Dr Burton said 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; a Cortex programme of capabilities to counter cyber threats 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.

Dr Burton called for global collaboration and conversation to help instigate the kind of real action needed in the fight against cyber insecurity. He identified a number of international initiatives that could help win the battle: the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention - The Convention on Cybercrime (XXX); the appointment of cyber ambassadors to engage with neighbouring countries and serve as a UN advocate; the establishment of a Cyber Geneva Convention to help prevent cyber attacks on "soft" targets such as health care services and systems; and the development of an international strategy around artificial intelligence.

"We need national strategies, collaborations among businesses, and a wide debate about our exposure to and risk of cyber insecurity," said Dr Burton. "We already have plenty of evidence of what can happen when these issues are not taken seriously."

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