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Can nations really work together on cybersecurity?

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There was plenty of talk about countries working together on cyberspace issues during the London Conference on Cyberspace. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, for instance, laid out seven principles to inform future accords. The urgency certainly seems evident, as every day seemingly brings news about a hacking attempt or malware outbreak somewhere in the world.

David Fidler teaches law at Indiana University. He says when we talk about collaboration, we’re really talking about three areas: crime, espionage and war. He says, “In the cybercrime area, there was this convention on cybercrime that was put in place 10 years ago in 2001. The problem with that is there’s only 30 countries that have joined. So it lays out international collaboration, but most countries around the world haven’t joined. The same is true with cyberwar. We’ve got no end of rules, it’s just uncertainty as to whether those rules will work with regards to particular cyber attacks. In terms of cyber-espionage, the big problem there is that at least in terms of international law, there really are no rules that prohibit or stop states from engaging in cyber-espionage.”

There have been plenty of examples of a handful of countries working together, sharing information and resources. But getting a large number of countries to work together in a meaningful way could prove prohibitively challenging because, says Fidler, the goals don’t necessarily square up. “Many of the great powers that you need to have converge in terms of their interest to drive this forward are at early stages of figuring out what they want out of cyber technologies,” he says, “and until they’ve figured that out, and mapped out their own interests with regards to international cooperation, I think a lot of this is just going to be spinning of the wheels.”

Relations between the U.S. and China over online issues have been tense lately, as have relations between the U.S. and Russia. American officials point to China and Russia as being the source of many hacking attempts. Fidler is dubious about attempts to get these superpowers to work together because they are so often competitors. “Whether it’s air power, naval power, armies, militaries,” he says, “now they’re concerned about how cyberspace may play into each country’s competitive advantage in this larger geopolitical space. So there’s an interdependency between what’s going on in cybersecurity issues and what’s going on in a larger context. I think it’s a new feature of this geopolitical rivalry.”

Alan Paller is policy director at the SANS Institute. He sees some hope for common ground, even between the United States and its rivals. “I think they are just as interested in keeping the unauthorized people from doing cybercrime as anyone else,” he says. “We have this view that everyone else is bad guy and we’re good guy and this is world in which many nations are acting in their own self-interest.”

Also on this program, a new vocabulary word: “Socialbots.” Some of your Facebook friends might actually be bits of computer code.

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