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Companies fear ‘cyber fatality’ after Target attack

The recent data breach at U.S. retailer Target, in which the personal data of at least 70 million customers were stolen, is an all-too harsh warning of the global threat of cybercrime.

Economies, companies and citizens are all at risk from having data stolen and the consequent sudden financial loss, according to analysts.

Ken Allan, global information security leader at professional services firm EY, said there was a growing fear, particularly among U.S. companies, of a "cyber fatality", where the scale of a breach was so damaging, a company failed to recover.

"This is not something that is secondary anymore, this is absolutely mainstream and front-of-mind," Allan told CNBC in a phone interview.

(Read more: Target CEO 'still shaken' by the data breach, vows to 'make itright')

Meanwhile, governments are highly concerned about cyberattacks. The U.K. affords cybercrime the same threat status as terrorism, while FBI Director James Comey has said cyber-attacks are surpassing terrorism as the major threat in the U.S.

Dimitri Otis | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Companies unprepared for attacks

Cybercrime is on the rise. Nearly a third of the 1,900 global senior executives surveyed by EY reported the number of security incidents within their organization had increased over the 12 months up to October 2013. CNBC's own Global CFO Council survey showed 83 percent of respondents were worried about cyberattacks.

Although almost half of the companies surveyed said they planned to increase spending on security, experts said firms failed to recognise the severity of the cyber-threat and were inadequately protected.

"This sort of thing is often delegated to the IT departments, when it should be discussed at a boardroom level," David Cook, solicitor advocate in the regulatory team at law firm Pannone, said in a phone interview. "More often than not, nobody has been bothered to look at the security vulnerabilities in a company until it's too late."

(Read more: Neiman Marcus: Hackers may have stolen payment card data)

Virtual crimes can be committed in a number of ways, from simple spam emails containing viruses to complex attacks aiming to bring down a network. And the financial risk to the global economy is very real, costing around $300 billion annually, according to a report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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