Global connectivity and exposure to cyber risks

Global connectivity and exposure to cyber risks

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee set up the World Wide Web to facilitate the sharing of information, files and e-mail. The Internet was born. Internet access has since become an essential resource in our connected society, offering endless opportunities for communication, information and online services. However, with the expansion of global connectivity also comes an increased risk of cyber attacks. Is there a link between people’s connectivity and their exposure to cyber risks? The answer may seem obvious, but the problem is much more subtle than it appears.

For over 20 years, the world has been working to connect its inhabitants. Today, more than 5.3 billion people use the Internet on a daily basis – almost two-thirds of the global population, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). While the connectivity of populations varies according to various factors such as infrastructure, IT adoption and government policies, it is the countries of the North (developed countries) that hold the highest percentage. Nearly 80% of the population in these countries has Internet access. (See map below)

The case of developing countries

In developing countries, particularly the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Internet access is constantly on the rise. This access has been made possible mainly by improvements in communications infrastructures. This includes the deployment of undersea cables, terrestrial broadband networks and wireless technologies such as 3G, 4G and now 5G. These infrastructures are essential for connecting remote regions and extending the reach of the Internet. Other factors favoring the development of connectivity include the falling cost of Internet services due to technological advances, increased competition between Internet service providers and favorable government policies. Low-cost Internet access offers, prepaid packages and affordable connectivity initiatives have made the Internet more accessible to a greater number of people.

China is one of the most striking examples of the expansion of Internet access. With a population of over 1.4 billion, China has seen phenomenal growth in the number of Internet users. According to statistics from the Cyberspace Administration of China, by 2020 the country will have over 989 million Internet users, representing almost 70% of the total population. This expansion has been supported by massive investment in communications infrastructure, the spread of smartphones and the emergence of technology giants such as Alibaba and Tencent.

Internet access in Africa has also grown significantly in recent years. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), by 2020, some 28.2% of the African population will have access to the Internet, compared with just 2.1% in 2005. This represents an increase of nearly 26 points in just 15 years. Countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have played a key role in this expansion, stimulating e-commerce, financial inclusion and access to information.

Finally, India, a member of the BRICS, is another striking example of the expansion of Internet access. With a population of over 1.3 billion, India has seen a spectacular increase in the number of Internet subscribers. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), by January 2021, the country had over 624 million Internet subscribers, representing around 46% of the total population. This expansion has been fuelled by the falling cost of Internet services, the development of low-cost smartphones and government initiatives such as the Digital India project, aimed at promoting connectivity and digital transformation.

Map UBCOM - Internet users per % of population

What’s the link between cyber attack surface and Internet access?

If the map of global connectivity is only going to trend towards more and more connected countries (in green on the map), it brings with it an ever-increasing risk of exposure to cyber threats. The main cause of the increase in cyber risk associated with the growth in Internet access is none other than the increase in the attack surface. The higher the percentage of the population with access to the Internet, the larger the potential attack surface for cyber criminals. This is due to the multiplication of entry points into online systems, such as computers, smartphones, connected objects and online platforms. A larger attack surface means that cybercriminals have a greater number of potential targets to carry out their attacks. Digital privacy expert Daniel Markuson explained in 2020 that: “Cybercriminals aren’t looking for victims, they’re looking for opportunities – a bit like pickpockets in crowded places. If you spend enough time on a crowded bus, a pickpocket will accidentally bump into you. Same story online. Your cyber-risk increases with every extra hour you spend online”.

If Nigeria or India are among the least vulnerable countries (see map above), then it’s quite simply “thanks” to low levels of connectivity. Only half (55% and 45% respectively) of their populations use the Internet, and less than a quarter own a smartphone.

However, the expansion of Internet access and attack surface does not automatically mean increased exposure to cyber-risks. Several factors are worth mentioning. Firstly, we are witnessing a growing awareness of online security. Users are better informed about risks and good security practices, leading them to take steps to protect their personal information and security online. Security measures are also constantly improving, with technological advances and more robust security practices enabling threats to be detected and anticipated. Finally, regulations and policies have improved to reinforce online security. Governments have developed laws and regulations to protect users and hold ISPs and technology companies accountable.

Estonia, for example, is a country that has seen a rapid expansion in Internet access but is considered one of the world leaders in cybersecurity. The Baltic state has successfully implemented proactive measures to protect its digital infrastructure, such as the development of advanced defense systems and raising citizens’ awareness of online security. These efforts have minimized risks and ensured a high level of security despite the expansion of Internet access.

Israel is also well known for its cybersecurity expertise, and has developed a thriving cybersecurity industry. Despite the high level of connectivity enjoyed by over 90% of its population, the country has succeeded in mitigating risks through a multi-faceted approach involving research and development of cutting-edge technologies, the training of specialized talent and close collaboration between companies, government agencies and academic institutions.

Looking at the examples and data presented, the link between population connectivity and cyber risks is very real. On the other hand, patterns do not repeat themselves. The most connected countries are inevitably the most exposed to the cyber threat, but they are also the ones with the most effective protection systems. The least connected countries, on the other hand, are experiencing exponential growth in connectivity. Their exposure to cyber risks is also increasing, but remains lower, due to the poverty of the information to be stolen or the inability of populations to respond to ransomware requests, for example.