Russia and US in secret talks to prevent cyberwar
American officials have been holding secret talks with Russia and the United Nations in an attempt to strengthen internet security and rein in the growing threat of cyberwarfare.
The effort, first reported in the New York Times, is a virtual version of the nuclear arms talks being held between the two nations in Geneva - but rather than focusing on bombs and missiles, the discussions are aimed at curbing the increasing level of attacks taking place online.
With a rising tide of strikes by hackers on major institutions - including banks, businesses, government agencies and the military - diplomats are attempting to forge an international consensus on how to deal with cybersecurity problems.
"Both sides are making positive noises," James Lewis, a senior fellow at the centre for strategic and international studies and a cyber security expert, told the Guardian. "We've never seen that before."
The potential for online warfare has become a hot topic in recent years, after a string of major incidents. Large-scale cyberattacks took place during last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia while the Estonian government came grinding to a halt after an internet assault in 2007.
Critics have said the scale and impact of such incidents may be overstated, but experts accept there are serious dangers from criminal gangs operating online - as well as the rapid growth of state-sponsored espionage conducted over the internet.
Earlier this year, some of the plans for a new £2bn fighter aircraft being developed by the US, UK, Netherlands and Israel were stolen when hackers broke into American computers. Two years ago, it was revealed that hackers thought to be linked to the Chinese People's Liberation Army had breached computer security systems at the Pentagon and Whitehall.
The latest discussions are thought to be an attempt to broker some sort of cross-border agreement over a number of issues related to internet security. Russia is said to be seeking a disarmament treaty for cyberspace, while the US hopes to use the talks to foster greater international cooperation on cybercrime.
Lewis confirmed that a Russian delegation met with officials from the US military, state department and security agencies in Washington about five weeks ago. Two weeks later, the White House agreed to meet representatives from the UN committee on disarmament and international security, the New York Times reported.
There are numerous sticking points however, not least the fact both the US and Russia - as well as most advanced militaries around the world - have sophisticated cyber warfare capabilities they are reluctant to document. Although the dangers of virtual conflicts are recognised, neither country is keen to hinder any future deployment by revealing the technologies they have developed, Lewis said.
Despite that, the talks mark a distinct turnaround from the approach of the Bush administration, which had resisted engaging with Russia and the UN over the prospect of a treaty on cyber weapons. Instead, it focused on dealing with cyber threats by economic and commercial means, rather than through the military.
Earlier this year, however, President Barack Obama identified cyber attacks as a "national security priority" and pledged to appoint a top-level White House adviser to co-ordinate responses..
"Cyberspace is real, and so is the risk that comes with it," he said in May. "From now on, our digital infrastructure will be treated as a strategic asset."
However, the post remains unfilled six months after the announcement., with disagreement inside the administration over how to coordinate the appropriate level of response. While some presidential advisers want the White House to take oversight of the issue, other top Obama aides prefer to let the commercial market handle cybersecurity. The US military and intelligence officials, meanwhile, prefer to pursue their own security programmes without direction from the White House.
Many American experts are more concerned with the financial threat of cybercrime and internet-based fraud, particularly since international enforcement efforts have been weakened by an inability to track and arrest the hackers responsible, many of whom are based in Russia and China.
Online crime is now a multibillion pound business worldwide, with criminal gangs across the globe conducting sophisticated cyber attacks to steal money from banks and disrupt commercial websites.
Last year, hackers broke into the Royal Bank of Scotland, using information gathered from to create cloned bank cards that were then used to withdraw more than £5m from cash machines in dozens of cities.
This August, an American man, Albert Gonzalez, pled guilty to his role in an attack that netted millions when an international hacking ring - largely based in Russia and the Ukraine - stole 130 million credit and debit card numbers from some of America's biggest retailers.
Despite knowing the identities of several individuals linked to Gonzalez, however, the lack of international cooperation means that the other culprits remain beyond the reach of US prosecutors.
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