A Global Consensus on Cyber Security Is Gaining Momentum

Members of the North Atlantic Council visit NATO cyber security center in Tallinn, Estonia, Jan. 23, 2015.

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Members of the North Atlantic Council visit NATO cyber security center in Tallinn, Estonia, Jan. 23, 2015.

Here’s what to look for in two meetings that will explore how states with limited capacity can draw upon technologically sophisticated countries.

Cybersecurity developments grab headlines. Everyone wants to know the tales of treachery and intrigue, who hacked who, and what was stolen or broken. Interest wanes, however, when the conversation switches to the drudgery of what is to be done, especially capacity building, which generally involves transferring knowledge and good practices to countries in the developing world so that they can improve their cybersecurity and participate on a more equitable basis in the digital economy. While it may be tedious work, it is critically important because the next billion Internet users will be from the developing world.

The topic of capacity building has become so important that the rather awkwardly-named Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Developments in the Field of Information and Communications Technology in the Context of International Security dedicated an entire section to the issue in its 2013 report. While for some, the section might have been a mere “throw-away” to reach consensus on other parts of the report, it identifies what state and non-state actors alike can do to overcome some of the issues undermining trust and driving insecurities with regard to cyberspace.

The 2013 GGE Report, combined with a range of capacity building programming by individual states (e.g. Australia, United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Nigeria, Korea, Kenya) and multilateral institutions (e.g. the EU, the UN, the Organization of American States) is driving deeper engagement with, and oversight by civil society, academia, think-tanks and the private sector. Individually, these actors have niche expertise. Collectively they have the ability to build the needed capacity in areas ranging from international security and diplomacy to basic IT hygiene and incident response.

While the number of actors currently engaged in cybersecurity capacity building might appear confusing and chaotic, confusion and chaos are not necessarily negative outcomes, especially at this early stage of our understanding of cyberspace and cybersecurity. The chaos and potential duplication represent the presence of an important and vigorous debate, which is producing a broad marketplace of ideas. Hence, suggestions and initiatives emerging from this wild and fertile terrain should not be disregarded.

At the same time, it is increasingly clear that we need to start separating the wheat from the chaff and develop some form of coordination and coherence of effort. Some of these efforts clearly push certain interests and values, but just as many do not. In the end, the recipients of capacity building efforts will weigh the pros and cons of the support provided.

One particular initiative is worth watching.

Coinciding with this week’s GGE meeting, the Dutch government is hosting the Global Conference on Cyberspace, an annual meeting launched by the U.K. government in 2011. The Dutch will use the opportunity to launch a Global Forum on Cyber Expertise for capacity building in the fields of cybersecurity, cybercrime, data regulation and e-development. There is also a historical echo as some 185 years ago, The Hague commissioned its first high speed communication network—a version of the shutter telegraph connecting the country’s capital to Breda and then to the navy base at Vlissingen as the Belgian War of Independence broke out.

The general idea behind the initiative is that states with limited capacity (policy or technical) will be able to draw from a pool of expertise (public and private) in other more technologically-sophisticated countries to improve their ability to address a cyber-related challenge.

As with many capacity building initiatives, the devil will be in the details. For example:

  • How will the Global Forum be sustained in the long term?
  • How will the Global Forum capture efforts that often fall below the radar yet are important to some actors and less so for others, such as regional initiatives?
  • Should the funding for these activities be channeled through traditional official development assistance, underpinned by existing principles and integrated into national development plans?
  • Will it include a focus on monitoring and assessing the effects of existing capacity building activities, an issue that receives scant attention?
  • How will it ensure capacity building efforts are not implemented in a governance vacuum?

Answering these questions and tailoring capacity building efforts accordingly will determine a country’s ability to thrive in the digital age. This is where the drudge work comes in, and again, much of it has to do with good governance.

Stealing from Dutch Foreign Minister Albert Koenders’words in a recent address, it is perhaps time to delve into the annals of history and dust off the writings of Machiavelli. Not, as highlighted by Koenders, the Machiavelli who said “the end justifies the means,” but rather the one who philosophized about the meaning of good governance:

Good governance as it has been taught for centuries, but which now has to be applied in an age of globalization, revolutionary technology and, fortunately, more vocal people. Good governance requires constant renewal of the social and political contract, combined with reform.

Unless we ensure that efforts to build capacity in this area go hand-in-hand with that “constant renewal of the social and political contract,” we may very well end up hoisted by our own political and social petard.

(Related: Why Sharing Information on Cyber Threats Is So Difficult)

As the diplomats on the GGE draft their next report, they should pay even closer attention to cybersecurity capacity building. They should signal that capacity building, dull as it may appear, is not an end in itself. Rather, it is an important part of the broader processes of political and social change going on around us.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.

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