RegulationSecurity

US And Russia In Talks To Prevent Cyber Arms Race

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The US is in talks with Russia and the UN to improve Internet security and prevent the breakout of cyber warfare

The US is in secret talks with Russia and the United Nations about strengthening Internet security and limiting military use of cyberspace, according to a report in the New York Times. The content of the talks is still unknown but the news marks a significant policy shift in the US, which has resisted entering into such talks for years.

Many countries, including the US, are developing weapons for use on some of the computer networks that are integral to large-scale operations, such as banks, electrical power systems, government offices and military organisations. These include “logic bombs” that can freeze computers at crucial times or damage circuitry, “botnets” that can disable or spy on websites and networks; and microwave radiation devices that can burn out computer circuits from miles away.

While the dangers of virtual conflicts are recognised, none of the countries involved wants to hinder any future deployment by revealing the technologies they have developed, according to James Lewis, a senior fellow at the centre for strategic and international studies and a cyber security expert. Both the US and Russia have sophisticated cyber warfare capabilities they are reluctant to document, Lewis told the Guardian.

Despite this, the Russians have long been pushing for an international treaty, similar to treaties that have limited the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, to tackle the increasing challenges posed by military activities to civilian computer networks. The US had previously resisted, arguing that it is impossible to distinguish between the commercial and military uses of software and hardware.

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However, back in May, President Barack Obama declared an end to the country’s uncoordinated attempts to “deter, prevent, detect and defend” against cyber-attacks, promising a new approach to online security. “In this information age, one of your greatest strengths – in our case, our ability to communicate to a wide range of supporters through the Internet – could also be one of your greatest vulnerabilities,” Obama said at the time.

Since then, some commentators have begun to see signs of a move towards resolving what has been described as an international arms race. “In the last months there are more signs of building better cooperation between the US and Russia,” said Veni Markovski, a Washington-based adviser to Bulgaria’s Internet security chief and representative to Russia for the organisation that assigns Internet domain names. “These are signs that show the dangers of cybercrime are too big to be neglected.”

Progress has not been made on all fronts, however. In May, Obama also promised to appoint an official in the White House to handle all matters relating to cyber security, but has so far failed to do so. “The urgency for progress in cyber security remains, and, therefore, so does the need for the appointment of a qualified, credible, senior level official to the cyber security coordinator post,” wrote TechAmerica President Phil Bond in a letter to Obama in October.