Can a voluntary framework deter cyberattacks?

With cyber attacks on the rise, experts wonder if voluntary norms are enough to keep the peace in cyberspace.

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.
 

In the context of increasing cyberattacks and espionage internationally, cyber experts wonder if the current voluntary framework is enough in the way of deterrence.

For cyber instances that fall short of acts of war by international law, the United Nations' Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) maintains a list of norms to establish an agreed-upon framework for behavioral standards.

At the Georgetown Conference on Cyber Engagement on April 24, Christopher Painter, the coordinator for cyber issues at the State Department, said that getting countries to agree to international norms is helpful for framing "the basis of a deterrence strategy in cyberspace" between countries. He added, though, that "not all the eggs are in that basket."

However, UN GGE Chair Karsten Geier noted that while greater attribution and international law would be desired by some experts, reaching international consensus is difficult, and may not be wise to rush into.

Sorin Ducaru, the head of NATO's Emerging Security Challenges Division, said that "it's better not to design any threshold" that would trigger a "collective defense response… because then you would entice the adversary to always go beyond it."

Painter called for further confidence-building measures, and said the U.S. "would certainly be willing" to support – and even expand – the GGE process or other similar consensus-based, expert-driven ones with clear mandates.

Scott Charney, corporate vice president of Microsoft, said that if international norms "work, that's great, but odds are there will be transgressors, and the question is always 'what's next?'"

In the wake of allegations of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security designated American election systems as "critical infrastructure," which has been met with pushback from states and a House bill to maintain the designation.

Painter suggested that wholly differentiating offensive acts in cyberspace from those in the physical world "misses the mark," and shot down the concept of needing a "digital Geneva" Convention."

Such talk, he said, "calls into question… whether the actual Geneva Convention and international law [apply] to cyberspace."

One lingering question is whether the U.S. is going to be trusted globally to take a lead role in setting the standards for cyber behavior.

"The Chinese just loved the Russian interference in the election because they said, 'you guys do this all the time, now you get to see what it's like,'" said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Painter acknowledged that "I don't think I'm going to persuade Russia or China," but engaging with other countries could offer the United States an opportunity to "make inroads… by bringing them to the table."

Geier, also the head of cyber coordination in Germany's Federal Foreign Office, said that "in my international outreach… states feel a fear of being abused because they don't feel they have a say, they don't have a voice that's being listened to." He added, "if we engage them… many of those swing states will actually come to our side."

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