Our increasing dependence on online systems, and the opportunity this creates for criminals to launch devastating cyber attacks, is one of the biggest risks to global financial and political stability in 2012, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

“The dark side of connectivity” is named as one of three major causes of concern in WEF's Global Risks 2012 report, alongside “seeds of dystopia” (growing resentment about disparity in earnings), and “unsafe safeguards” (lack of protection from risks related to emerging technologies, financial interdependence, resource depletion and climate change).

The real world consequences of virtual world attacks can range from mundane petty crime and mischief-making to shutting down critical systems, or even potentially triggering physical armed warfare, the report states.

“Terrorism, crime and war in the virtual world have, so far, been less deadly and disruptive than their equivalents in the physical world, but there is a growing fear that this could change,” the report states. “A virus like Stuxnet could conceivably trigger a meltdown in a functioning nuclear power plant, turn off oil and gas pipelines or change the chemical composition of tap water.”

The reasons behind such attacks are often difficult to fathom, but the report identifies three main objectives – sabotage, espionage and subversion. Stuxnet is an example of sabotage, as it aimed to delay the Iranian nuclear programme’s development.

Cyber espionage often involves stealing files from high-profile organisations using advanced persistent threats, like in the case of GhostNet. An example of subversion, meanwhile, is hacktivist group Anonymous's attack on HBGary Federal, which used denial-of-service attacks to prevent people from accessing data.

The report suggests that these types of cyber attack are likely to become more prevalent this year, as populations turn to technology in their struggle against social inequality. This follows movements like the Arab Spring, when people in Libya, Egypt and Syria used social networks to organise and coordinate protests.

“The Arab Spring demonstrated the power of interconnected communications services to drive personal freedom, yet the same technology facilitated riots in London,” said Steve Wilson, chief risk officer for general insurance at Zurich. “Governments, societies and businesses need to better understand the interconnectivity of risk in today’s technologies if we are truly to reap the benefits they offer.”  

The three risk cases will be the focus of special sessions at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2012 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. The meeting will take place on 25-29 January.