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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Report: The $120 trillion gap between a safe and insecure future Internet

The economic difference between the best and worst forecasts of the Internet could be as high as $120 trillion over the next 15 years, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council think-tank and Zurich Insurance.

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Will the future Internet be a utopia where cybersecurity is considered a human right – or so plagued by cybercrime that security becomes a luxury good?

The economic difference between those best and worst forecasts could be as high as $120 trillion worldwide over the next 15 years, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council think-tank and Zurich Insurance.

They teamed up with the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver to determine if the global benefits the Internet brings in terms of innovation and productivity would outpace – or be overshadowed by – digital threats.

“Tens and even hundreds of trillions of dollars are at stake … not to mention the social and cultural impact,” the report found. “These trends may be approaching a tipping point, with perhaps a small window of a few years to pull back and reorient towards a more secure and more resilient Internet.”

To calculate the possible benefits or drawbacks to connectivity in these alternate futures, the report first estimated a “base case” of how past trends might continue into the future. Relying on sources and inputs from across the world, the report found the costs of cybersecurity technology and the repercussions of government hacks and corporate breaches are already starting to outweigh the annual economic benefits from global connectivity in high-income countries such as the US.

Cybersecurity spending this year is roughly $250 billion, the report found, projecting that number could double to $500 billion by 2030. The cost of cybercrime is expected to climb, too, reaching as much as $1.2 trillion by 2030.

Yet the global benefits from using the Internet are expected to outpace the costs of cyberattacks by $160 trillion by 2030 in this base case, the report found.

That’s good news. But the future could be even brighter – $30 trillion brighter – if one of the possible scenarios the report modeled comes true.

In the report’s paradisiacal vision of the Internet future, dubbed by the report “Cyber Shangri La,” the dreams of Silicon Valley are realized: New technologies are implemented quickly; secure online access is a human right. In this scenario, cyberdefense becomes cheaper and easier than offense – perhaps through mainstreamed autonomous or automatic defenses. In this future, the benefits of the Internet would yield a net global gain of $190 trillion by 2030.

Compare that with the report’s darker scenario it dubs “Clockwork Orange Internet.” In this case, the Internet is totally unstable and insecure – and is projected to cost the world $90 trillion in potential net economic benefit, which comprises the staggering $120 trillion difference from the best case model in the report.

That’s because, in this model, cybersecurity falls to constant attacks by criminals and nation-states. An Internet teeming with what the report calls “bad neighborhoods” will have societal repercussions, as well: “There is little to no trust, as people cannot have faith in their networked devices or other people online.”

Countries, companies, and individuals must work together to avoid the "Clockwork Orange Internet" and instead achieve the trillions of dollars made possible by a secure Internet, the report said. “Avoiding the worst futures is a global collective action problem that requires a sense of joint stewardship over the Internet.”

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