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Tackling the effects of malicious cyber attacks

  • Published at 12:01 am April 14th, 2019
Cyber Security
Preventing encroachment into privacy BIGSTOCK

The challenges are both technical and political 

After the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, it is being recognized all over the world that spiteful cyber activities have been gradually evolving into a growing threat. 

This outrage subsequently drew the attention not only of community leaders, but also the political heads of government across the globe. All of them have come forward and agreed that necessary measures need to be taken to ensure cyber security and responsible use of social media.

Europe, in particular, has been the subject of several massive cyber attacks. This has persuaded the EU to be active in the field of cyber security and try and create tools for responding effectively to situations that might be attributed to cyber attacks.

One needs to understand that the attribution of cyber attacks poses a number of challenges -- both technical and political. This casts its own shadow on the matrix, as states do not possess a similar level of the required cyber and intelligence capabilities. There is also the lack of uniformity in aspects pertaining to the political and administrative.

In this regard, EU institutions are trying to agree on developing common threat assessments and a shared culture of attribution of cyber attacks. To achieve this, cyber experts from EU member states are advising member countries not only as to how to upgrade their information sharing but also exercising the Cyber Diplomacy Toolbox. 

While doing so, importance is being underlined with regard to required investment in human and technical capacities and also in creating and updating internal procedures so that the work of cyber security professionals feeds into the political decision-making process. The EU is treading the ground with care as the public attribution of attacks or the use of sanctions will have to be wielded carefully, based on strong compelling evidence.

In this regard, the EU, the US, and Canada are also pursuing cooperation with the private sector and international partners. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the BRICS community is taking special note of how the situation is evolving in the EU. 

This approach is being underlined to point out that while the cyber diplomacy toolbox might be complementary to actions by individual member states, acting together would allow countries all over the world to be more credible and send a stronger deterrent message. By responding to cyber threats as a united actor, we can then all be better placed to defend our security, our political and economic interests, and be able to further enhance our credibility as an international actor.

It may be recalled that in May 2017, the Wanna Cry ransom ware attack quickly spread around the world, encrypting data and demanding ransom payments in the crypto-currency Bitcoin. The attack was estimated to have affected more than 300,000 computers across 150 countries, causing over $4 billion worth of damages. 

Such unwanted incidents have been taking place even before that for the last three decades. In this context, one remembers the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia amid Tallinn’s disagreement with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet-era statue. It drew particular attention to this security challenge. 

More recently, Ukraine has also suffered a series of cyber attacks, including on its electricity grid, which temporarily disrupted electricity supply in 2015 and 2016. In June 2017, the major NotPetya cyber attack spread from its target Ukraine to the rest of the world, affecting numerous companies in Europe. The attack severely affected the Danish company AP Møller-Mærsk, the world’s largest container shipping company, which saw a large part of its IT infrastructure taken offline, creating a loss of $200-300m.

Recognizing the reality of the threat, the EU, United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have been working over the past few years in strengthening cyber security in Europe and tackling cyber attacks against infrastructures, cyber-espionage, intellectual property theft, and hybrid threats using cyber means. 

It would be pertinent to mention that unlike the EU and other regional groups, the US, benefiting from a less fragmented decision-making system and better equipped cyber agencies. They have been more active both in bringing criminal charges against government-sponsored hackers and in putting in place sanctions against them and their organizations.

In September 2018, the US Department of Justice formally charged a North Korean programmer for several cyber attacks, including for his role in the creation and spread of the WannaCry attack. In October 2018, they also announced criminal charges against seven Russian military officers for several hacking operations.

In the current situation, cyber security enables us to ensure accountability and also prevent encroachment into privacy. It also assists in restricting and controlling the after-effects of fundamentalism, terrorism, sectarianism, and populism.

However, in order for us to succeed in defeating malicious cyber attacks, we need to guarantee preventive measures, including confidence-building measures, awareness raising, and also cyber capacity building. There also has to be cooperative measures, including the use of political and thematic dialogues and demarches, thematic dialogues and also the potential for applying restrictive measures on the guilty party through lawful responses.

All parties also need to understand that there is an international consensus that existing international law is applicable to cyberspace. Existing international legislation includes principles agreed in the reports of the UN Groups of Governmental Experts (UN GGE). 

The 2015 UNGEE report offered a non-exhaustive list of the principles of international law that states must observe in their use of information and communications technologies. Among them are: “State sovereignty, sovereign equality, the settlement of disputes by peaceful means, and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States”, as well as the respect and protection of human rights, and fundamental freedoms. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]