Ignatius: Russia's worrisome push to control cyberspace

Ignatius: Russia's worrisome push to control cyberspace

October 26th, 2017 by David Ignatius in Opinion Times Commentary

WASHINGTON — Russia's cybermeddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been accompanied by what U.S. and European experts describe as a worrisome Kremlin campaign to rewrite the rules for global cyberspace.

A draft of a Russian proposal for a new "United Nations Convention on Cooperation in Combating Information Crimes" was recently shown to me by a security expert who obtained a copy.

The 54-page document includes 72 proposed articles, covering collection of internet traffic by authorities, "codes of conduct" for cyberspace and "joint investigation" of malicious activity. The language sounds bureaucratic and harmless, but experts say that if adopted, it would allow Russia to squeeze cyberspace even more.

The Kremlin's proposed convention would enhance the ability of Russia and other authoritarian nations to control communication within their countries, and to gain access to communications in other countries, according to several leading U.S. cyberexperts.

They described the latest draft as part of Moscow's push over the past decade to shape the legal architecture of what Russian strategists like to call the "information space."

Russia's bid to rewrite global rules through the U.N. was matched by a personal pitch on cybercooperation in July from President Vladimir Putin to President Trump at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. Putin "vehemently denied" to Trump that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election, Trump said in a tweet. Trump then floated a mystifying proposal: "Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe."

Trump's suggestion that America join Russia in cyberdefense provoked an uproar in the U.S. One Twitter commentator wrote: "This is like the FBI asking the Mafia to form an anti-crime unit together."

The White House quickly backtracked after Trump's tweet. Homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told reporters on July 14: "I don't believe that the U.S. and Russia have come to that point yet in cyberspace. And until we do, we wouldn't have the conversation about partnership."

Many U.S. cyberexperts share Bossert's view that although any formal treaty or partnership with Moscow now is unwise, quiet confidence-building discussions might be useful. Those could include military-to-military or technical contacts to explore how to avoid catastrophic cyberevents that might cripple strategic systems or pose systemic risk.

U.S. and Russian officials had maintained such a dialogue to explore norms for the internet, but so far it has been a dead end. The Russians were led by Andrey Krutskikh, a foreign ministry official who is Putin's cyberadviser; and on the U.S. side, by Christopher Painter, who was White House cyberchief under President Obama and then cybercoordinator at the State Department, a post he's leaving soon.

Those contacts are sensible, but they have withered as U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated.

The Russians, meanwhile, continue their campaign to regulate cyberspace on their terms, by mobilizing allies to support their alternative to the Budapest convention.

Russia got some global support for its rules-making effort at a September gathering in Xiamen, China, of the so-called BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

In their formal declaration, the countries "recognize the need for a universal regulatory binding instrument on combatting the criminal use of ICTs [information and communications technologies] under the U.N. auspices." The countries "acknowledge the initiative" of Russia in seeking such a binding pact.

If the events of the past year have taught us anything, it's that Russia views information as a decisive political weapon and wants to control this potential battlespace. The global regulatory side of this contest gets little attention, but it could help determine whether open information flows survive in the age of the autocrats.

Washington Post Writers Group

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com