2016 Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

Fragmented Voice of Authority: Experts Can Speak but Who’s Listening?

Myopic decision-making based on self-selected information sources results in broad-based societal and economic harm.
By: | April 4, 2016 • 6 min read

On Jan. 11, a German-Russian girl alleged she’d been assaulted by a Muslim mob. Her allegations fed into weeks of anti-immigrant hysteria in Germany and tension between Moscow and Berlin before her statements were unveiled as a hoax.

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Fears over Syrian immigrants and Ebola light up our mobile devices as the much broader dangers of E. coli in our food supply and hospital-acquired infections get lost in the digital noise.

Misinformation on the connection between vaccination and autism spreads globally, leading parents around the world to stop inoculating their children. As a result, the measles, thought to be contained, re-emerges as a health threat in California, Germany and elsewhere.

All of these are examples of the fragmentation of the voice of informed authority.  This emerging risk stems from our tendency to self-select information sources, choosing reports that conform with our pre-established notions, rather than trust official statements.

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

In essence, there are large segments of the population giving more credence to friends’ Facebook posts than to information from the government or some other informed source.

“Because of the way that information is curated and supplied to audiences, people are increasingly curating their own sources of facts, and this changes society’s ability to understand and respond to information. Consequently authoritative information is being distorted based on our own lens,” said Helen Thompson, the director of commercial marketing for Esri.

Thompson pointed to a February extreme weather event in Virginia in which four people were killed as a risk that most people ignore, either because the death toll was “low”, or the risk wasn’t sensational enough.

“Natural disasters slip off the agenda because unless you are directly impacted something you consider equally or more important comes down your curated channel and displaces it,” she said.

“We know that when people are seeking new information, when they perceive a risk of some sort, that they hold onto the first piece of information that makes common sense to them,” said Barbara Reynolds, a senior crisis and risk communications adviser with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unfortunately, sometimes that piece that they are exposed to and hold onto right away could be incorrect, making it more difficult to share correct information,” she said.

The risk is that stakeholders will underestimate grave threats, magnify less substantial ones, and fail to take appropriate action. And negative information, whether by street corner gossip, or through social media, spreads much faster than accurate information which might not be as dire.

“When we see something that affects us in a negative way, we are more inclined to retweet or rebroadcast that information without trying to understand whether this is an actual fact,” said Emilio Ferrara, a researcher with the Information Sciences Institute & Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California.

“That is one of the most dangerous consequences,” Ferrara added.

“The fact that this conversation can foster the spread of panic, or even mass hysteria, whereas there is no practical risk involved.”

International Consequences

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Perhaps the most glaring example is the current presidential election cycle in the United States.

An executive with a European reinsurer said he and his colleagues see the tone of political dialogue in the United States as a threat. That the acrimony, extremism and misinformation being expressed in some corners could lead to grave international consequences.

Among members of the Democratic and Republican parties, what’s emerged is a widespread belief that substantial disruption is needed.  That there is something very “wrong,” and that a radical overhaul is in order.

“Our willingness to accept decentralized dissemination of knowledge and reject centralization of knowledge is what’s changed.” —Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

That’s leading to extreme ideas like building a wall between the United States and Mexico or free college student tuition — without calculating the financial cost or the societal impact.

This when the national unemployment rate is at 5 percent, violent crime is down and we have access to better health care than previous generations, said Thompson.

“Our willingness to accept decentralized dissemination of knowledge and reject centralization of knowledge is what’s changed,” she said.

“For whatever reason, there is widespread mistrust of government and the information it shares at the federal, state and local level.”

Technology Holds the Answer

But just as technology, in the form of social media and the internet, are the vehicles for the spread of misinformation and mistrust, experts agree that technology holds the hope of mitigating, not only internet-spread rumors, but real threats such as food supply chain dangers or internet propaganda campaigns of terror organizations.

Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communications adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communications adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Yes, we have the fragmentation that you are talking about, that is true,” said Barbara Reynolds, the CDC risk and communications adviser who spent her career at the nexus of communications and social psychology.

“But when I put those parts of my knowledge together, I find that for every negative there is a positive,” she added.

In Reynolds’ view, these online postings, Tweets and “shares” mean that government agencies become less paternalistic.

“For someone in the business of trying to help people make good health decisions, this is an invaluable feedback mechanism for me,” she said.

Whereas before it might take her days or weeks to filter through reactions to CDC statements, now she gets that feedback almost immediately.

“You can’t just put out a recommendation, you have to be able to withstand attacks,” she said. “What’s really important is to be out there first. It has to be repeated and it has to come from more than one source.”

That means dropping the notion that you are the only authority and seeking strength in numbers. Reynolds said her organization now knows to communicate in concert with other health care organizations.

“It’s important for us to work with other authorities who are trusted and bring them into the conversation,” Reynolds said.

USC’s Ferrara said he and his co-researchers are creating algorithms that are capable of learning the characteristics of misinformation campaigns.

“We are seeing promising advances into the realm of detecting — and even predicting when it’s possible — forms of artificial orchestrated campaigns.

And a campaign can be defined as sustained efforts from some party or entity or a group of people to push some information out.”

Ferrara is collaborating with a company in Washington, D.C. on a system to be used by the U.S. Department of Defense to identify and mitigate terroristic propaganda campaigns. He is also working on frameworks for the CDC and other health care authorities.

“Yes, we have the fragmentation that you are talking about, that is true. But when I put those parts of my knowledge together, I find that for every negative there is a positive.” —Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communication adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Even though the general population might not be focused on food supply chain risks, Thompson’s Esri is working on solutions.

She said her company is working with international organizations to create a unique way to link every farm in the food supply chain to the produce they grow.

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“Now when you say, where did this apple come from and where did this prawn come from, you know its exact origin,” Thompson said.

It’s not only food supply chain risk that can be mitigated in this manner.

Labor law compliance, supply chain concerns over conflict diamonds or “gray market” gold could also be tracked through advanced technology.

“It’s going to require us to exchange information, transfer liability and quantify risk in a different way that’s happened before,” she added.

She said technology improvements and the Internet of Things will also allow for the tracking of every single unit a factory, farm or mine produces. That should provide much greater clarity for companies mitigating or facing a product recall.

“The IOT is going to fundamentally transform the way we monitor compliance and mitigate these classes of major risks,” she said. &

BlackBar

2016’s Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

brokenbridgeThe Fractured Future Infrastructure in disrepair, power grids at risk, rampant misinformation and genetic tinkering — is our world coming apart at the seams?

01b_cover_story_crackCrumbling Infrastructure: Day of Reckoning Our health and economy are increasingly exposed to a long-documented but ignored risk.

01c_cover_story_leadCyber Grid Attack: A Cascading Impact The aggregated impact of a cyber attack on the U.S. power grid causes huge economic losses and upheaval.

01e_cover_story_dnaGene Editing: The Devil’s in the DNA Biotechnology breakthroughs can provide great benefits to society, but the risks can’t be ignored.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Black Swan: EMP

Chaos From Above

An electromagnetic pulse event triggered by the detonation of a low-yield nuclear device in Earth’s atmosphere triggers economic and societal chaos.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 9 min read

Scenario

The vessel that seeks to undo America arrives in the teeth of a storm.

The 4,000-ton Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper sails towards California in December 2017. It is shepherded toward North America by a fierce Pacific winter storm, a so-called “Pineapple Express,” boasting 15-foot waves and winds topping 70 mph.

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Normally, Pandawas Viper carries cargo containers. This time she harbors a much more potent payload.

Unbeknownst to U.S. defense and intelligence officials, the Viper carries a single nuclear weapon, loaded onto a naval surface-to-air missile, or SAM, concealed below deck.

The warhead has an involved history. It was smuggled out of Kyrgyzstan in 1997, eventually finding its way into the hands of Islamic militants in Indonesia that are loosely affiliated with ISIS.

Even for these ambitious and murderous militants, outfitting a freighter with a nuclear device in secrecy and equipping it to sail to North America in the hopes of firing its deadly payload is quite an undertaking.

Close to $2 million in bribes and other considerations are paid out to ensure that the Pandawas Viper sets sail for America unmolested, her cargo a secret held by less than two dozen extremist Islamic soldiers.

The storm is a perfect cover.

Officials along the West Coast busy themselves tracking the storm, doing what they think is the right thing by warning residents about flooding and landslides, and securing ports against storm-related damage.

No one gives a second thought to the freighter flying Indonesian colors making its way toward the Port of Long Beach, as it apparently should be.

It’s only at two in the morning on Sunday, December 22, that an alert Port of San Diego administrator charged with monitoring ocean-going cargo traffic sees something that causes him to do a double take.

GPS tracking information indicates to him that the Pandawas Viper is not heading to Long Beach, as indicated on its digital shipping logs, but is veering toward Baja, Calif.

Were it to keep its present course, it would arrive at Tijuana, Mexico.

The port administrator dutifully notifies the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Indonesian freighter Pandawas Viper off course, possibly storm-related navigational difficulties,” he emails on a secure digital communication channel operated by the port and the Coast Guard.

“Monitor and alert as necessary,” his message, including the ship’s current coordinates, concludes.

In turn, a communications officer in the Coast Guard’s Alameda, Calif. offices dutifully alerts members of the Coast Guard’s Pacific basin security team. She’s done her job but she’s about an hour late.

At 3:15 am Pacific time on December 22, the deck on the Pandawas Viper opens and the naval surface-to-air missile, operated remotely by a militant operative in Jakarta, is let loose.

It’s headed not for Los Angeles or San Diego, but rather Earth’s atmosphere, where it detonates about 50 miles above the surface.

There it interacts with the planet’s atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetic field to produce an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, which radiates down to Earth, creating additional electric or ground-induced currents.

The operative’s aim is perfect. With a charge of hundreds and in some cases thousands of volts, the GICs cause severe physical damage to all unprotected electronics and transformers. Microchips operate in the range of 1.5 to 5 volts and thus are obliterated by the billions.

As a result, the current created by the blast knocks out 70 percent of the nation’s grid. What began as an overhead flash of light plunges much of the nation into darkness.

The first indication for most people that there is a problem is that their trusty cellphones can do no more than perform calculations, tell them the time or play their favorite tunes.

As minutes turn to hours, however, people realize that they’ve got much bigger concerns on their hands. Critical infrastructure for transportation and communications ceases. Telecommunication breakdowns mean that fire and police services are unreachable.

For the alone, the elderly and the otherwise vulnerable, panic sets in quickly.

Hospital administrators feverishly calculate how long their emergency power supplies can last.

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Supermarkets and other retailers anticipating one of their biggest shopping days of the year on that Monday, December 23, instead wake up to cold homes and chilling prospects.

Grocery stores with their electricity cut off are unable to open and product losses begin to mount. Banks don’t open. Cash machines are inoperable.

In the colder parts of the United States, the race to stay warm is on.  Within a day’s time in some poorer neighborhoods, furniture is broken up and ignited for kindling.

As a result, fires break out, fires that in many cases will not draw a response from firefighting crews due to the communication breakdown.

As days of interruption turn into weeks and months, starvation, rioting and disease take many.

Say good-bye to most of the commercial property/casualty insurance companies that you know. The resulting chaos adds up to more than $1 trillion in economic losses. Property, liability, credit, marine, space and aviation insurers fail in droves.

Assume widespread catastrophic transformer damage, long-term blackouts, lengthy restoration times and chronic shortages. It will take four to 10 years for a full recovery.

The crew which launched the naval surface-to-air missile that resulted in all of this chaos makes a clean getaway. All seven that were aboard the Pandawas Viper make their way to Ensenada, Mexico, about 85 miles south of San Diego via high-speed hovercraft.

Those that bankrolled this deadly trip were Muslim extremists. But this boat crew knows no religion other than gold.

Well-paid by their suppliers, they enjoy several rounds of the finest tequila Ensenada can offer, and a few other diversions, before slipping away to Chile, never to be brought to justice.

Observations

This outcome does not spring from the realm of fiction.

In May, 1999, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, high-ranking Russian officials meeting with a U.S. delegation to discuss the Balkans conflict raised the notion of an EMP attack that would paralyze the United States.

That’s according to a report of a commission to assess the threat to the United States from an EMP attack, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2004. But Russia is not alone in this threat or in this capability.

Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

North Korea also has the capability and the desire, according to experts, and there is speculation that recent rocket launches by that country are dress rehearsals to detonate a nuclear device in our atmosphere and carry out an EMP attack on the United States.

The first defense against such an attack is our missile defense. But some experts believe this country is ill-equipped to defend against this sort of scenario.

“In terms of risk mitigation, if an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed, which would be our military defense systems, because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded,” said Wes Dupont, a vice president and general counsel with the Allied World Assurance Company.

The U.S power grid is relatively unprotected against EMP blasts, Dupont said.

And a nuclear blast is the worst that can occur. There isn’t much mitigation that’s been done because many methods are unproven, and it’s expensive, he added.

Lloyd’s and others have studied coronal mass ejections, solar superstorms that would produce a magnetic field that could enter our atmosphere and wipe out our grid.  Scientists believe that an EMP attack would carry a force far greater than any coronal mass ejection that has ever been measured.

An extended blackout, with some facilities taking years to return to full functionality, is a scenario that no society on earth is ready for.

“Traditional scenarios only assume blackouts for a few days and losses seem to be moderate …” wrote executives with Allianz in a 2011 paper outlining risk management options for power blackout risks.

“If an event like this happens, then that means the best risk mitigation we have has already failed … because the terrorists have already launched their weapon, and it’s already exploded.” — Wes Dupont, vice president and general counsel, Allied World Assurance Company

“But if we are considering longer-lasting blackouts, which are most likely from space weather or coordinated cyber or terrorist attacks, the impacts to our society and economy might be significant,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“Critical infrastructure such as communication and transport would be hampered,” the Allianz executives wrote.

“The heating and water supply would stop, and production processes and trading would cease. Emergency services like fire, police or ambulance could not be called due to the breakdown of the telecommunications systems. Hospitals would only be able to work as long as the emergency power supply is supplied with fuel. Financial trading, cash machines and supermarkets in turn would have to close down, which would ultimately cause a catastrophic scenario,” according to Allianz.

It would cost tens of billions to harden utility towers in this country so that they wouldn’t be rendered inoperable by ground-induced currents. That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s really not when we think about the trillion dollars or more in damages that could result from an EMP attack, not to mention the loss of life.

Allianz estimates that when a blackout is underway, financial trading institutions, for example, suffer losses of more than $6 million an hour; telecommunications companies lose about $30,000 per minute, according to the Allianz analysis.

Insurers, of course, would be buffeted should a rogue actor pull off this attack.

Lou Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

“Depending on the industries and the locations that are affected, it could really change the marketplace, insurers and reinsurers as well,” said Lou Gritzo, a vice president and manager of research at FM Global.

Gritzo said key practices to defend against this type of event are analyzing supply chains to establish geographically diverse supplier options and having back-up systems for vital operations.

The EMP commission of 2004 argued that the U.S. needs to be vigilant and punish with extreme prejudice rogue entities that are endeavoring to obtain the kind of weapon that could be used in an attack like this.

It also argued that we need to protect our critical infrastructure, carry out research to better understand the effects of such an attack, and create a systematic recovery plan. Understanding the condition of critical infrastructure in the wake of an attack and being able to communicate it will be key, the commission argued.

The commission pointed to a blackout in the Midwest in 2003, in which key system operators did not have an alarm system and had little information on the changing condition of their assets as the blackout unfolded.

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The commission’s point is that we have the resources to defend against this scenario. But we must focus on the gravity of the threat and employ those resources.

Our interconnected society and the steady increase in technology investment only magnify this risk on a weekly basis.

“Our vulnerability is increasing daily as our use of and dependence on electronics continues to grow,” the EMP commission members wrote back in 2004.

But “correction is feasible and well within the nation’s means and resources to accomplish,” the commission study authors wrote. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]