A series of high-profile cyberattacks on targets in the West have highlighted the vulnerability of companies and institutions, making the issue a higher public priority but with no easy solution.

The latest incident to underline the capacity of cybercriminals to disrupt daily life came early this month when Colonial Pipeline, a US-based operator of a key fuel pipeline, became a victim of ransomware.

The attack saw its computer systems encrypted, putting its operations offline and causing fuel shortages for US drivers.

At the end of last year, US authorities also revealed that hackers had compromised SolarWinds software which was run by large parts of the US government and companies around the country. Russia was blamed.

Cybersecurity firms and experts have been warning for years about the rising tide of online attacks – some state-orchestrated, some criminally motivated.

Many organisations are complacent, said Suzanne Spaulding of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank. “There are two kinds of companies in the world, those who have been hacked and those who haven’t detected it yet,” she told AFP.

Julien Nocetti, a researcher at the Geode institute at Paris 8 university, noted that Europe and the US “are sometimes shown as being the victims and the nice guys in this domain … but that’s not how it is. There’s a general blindness about our own operations.”

The reach and power of the US National Security Agency was laid bare in 2013 following leaks by fugitive contractor Edward Snowden.

While some experts worry that one day a state-backed cyberattack will trigger a spiral of reprisals and counter-reprisals that could trigger real-life hostilities, countries may have built up enough digital weapons to serve as a deterrent.