Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cyber talks fail to reach consensus

While ground breaking in many respects, the London Cyber event, which was held this week, failed to establish anything concrete. If anything it only served to highlight the rift that exists between totalitarian governments which seek to control the Internet and the more liberal democratic societies which aim to promote a free and less restricted network.


The event was groundbreaking in as much as it was effectively transparent and open. Though there were backroom conversations and debates, a significant part of the event was broadcast live over the Internet via the FCO website.

However some did complain the conference was not open enough. In a press conference held on Wednesday afternoon one freelance journalist asked the British Foreign Secretary how he squared the statements of a more open and free Internet with the fact that "the press were kept kettled in another part of the building". William Hague dismissed the criticism say that the event was as open, given it had been streamed over the Internet and explained that due to the high number of delegates and other participants it was down to an issue of space.

Indeed previous discussions between foreign countries concerning the Internet, cybercrime, cyber attacks and security issues have often been held behind closed doors. Hague for his part is a strong advocate and user of social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. And he had encouraged debate via Twitter using the hashtag #LondonCyber.

Lively discussions

In fact, some of the most lively discussion were in cyberspace and particularly on Twitter. By following the designated hashtag a constant stream of comments were aired by Twitter users. And for technophiles, security experts and others interested in the conference, Twitter was by far one of the more interesting conduits of information.

As regards the conference itself, William Hague had said he hoped the event would bring governments together in order to establish "acceptable norms of behaviour in cyberspace" [BBC].

Talking to the BBC prior to the event he conceded that it would be impossible to get to some sort of treaty or Geneva style convention in one short conference. However William Hague suggested that a treaty was not necessarily an answer given the parties involved, be they governments, criminal entities, security companies and others. The discussions were, he said, to "establish a general understanding between countries who will then work together in many different ways in order to protect privacy and protect freedom on the Internet but also to try and stop things that are unacceptable and illegal offline and stop those happening online."

Of course there were other absences besides the partial exclusion of the press. Hackers and representatives from Iran were not at conference. "There is a limit to what we can do," Hague admitted, adding that while governments need to have appropriate laws, solving the issues of cyber security has to be built through cooperation, and that businesses and academia needed to be involved.

As well protecting online privacy and issues concerning intellectual property right and copyright there was also a need to balance this with freedom on the Internet, Hague maintained.

Internet freedom

It was the discussion over Internet freedom which created the biggest obstacle between delegates from different countries.

"Too many states around the world are seeking to go beyond legitimate interference or disagree with us about what constitutes 'legitimate' behaviour," William Hague told the London Conference on Cyberspace. But he was not just pointing a finger at China, often cited as having some of the strongest censorship rules and regulations.

"We saw in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that cutting off the Internet, blocking Facebook, jamming Al Jazeera, intimidating journalists and imprisoning bloggers does not create stability or make grievances go away ... The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock." [Globe & Mail]

But his calls for greater Internet freedom and transparency was lambasted by Russia and China who accused both the UK and the United States of hypocrisy.

In September, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had proposed to the United Nations a global code of conduct including the principle that "policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of states".

But calls for such a "cyber treaty" was rejected by western countries with the United States in particular being direct and forthright.

"What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high," US Vice President Joe Biden said. "No citizen of any country should be subject to a repressive global code when they send an email or post a comment to a news article. They should not be prevented from sharing their innovations with global consumers simply because they live across a national frontier. That is not how the Internet should ever work in our view."

As many have stated prior to the conference such controls on the Internet stifles innovation, Biden said. If countries wanted the economic benefits of connectivity, they needed openness the US Vice President asserted.

While Britain has faced some criticism following Prime Minister David Cameron's suggestion this August after England's riots that government might impose controls on some social media platforms, such proposals have been shelved either as being too impractical or because it is seen by some ministers as going too far.

While not referring directly to his riots comments earlier this year, Cameron said future prosperity and peace depended on managing cyberspace properly.

"Governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship, or to deny people the opportunities that the Internet represents," Cameron said. "The balance we've got to strike is between freedom and a free-for-all."

At a press conference organised by the Russian delegation, Igor Shchegolev denied the "code of conduct" was part of a plan to censor the Internet, saying it was simply about refreshing now outdated telecommunications treaties.

"We in Russia are convinced that it is impossible to block or censor the Internet," he said. "Some countries in Europe declare that some social disturbance takes place they will close access to Twitter and Facebook. Russia doesn't even consider this possibility."

However there are countries which have a stranglehold on the Internet. While some Arab states and countries in the Middle East have tight controls on what may be accessed, it is China which imposes the most draconian rules.

No-one in China would have been able to follow the London Cyber debate online via Twitter nor Facebook unless they were using sophisticated software to circumvent the blocks imposed by the Chinese government.

And while there are homegrown microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, these are strictly controlled and vetted both by the government and the companies themselves.

However, William Hague maintained that such controls were not entirely effective. "The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock," he said [Reuters].

There were some issues on which most delegates agreed, and that was better international co-operation to tackle online crime, child pornography and other threats.

But while few would argue against a clamp down on sites disseminating child pornography, there is some disagreement concerning adult sites which would be seen as legitimate in some countries whilst illegal in others. Many Islamic countries frown upon such material and China often legitimises its online censorship claiming that it is to stop the flow of sexual content.

In fact just prior to the start of the London conference, China said it had shut down some 50 microblogs which were disseminating "vulgar content". According to Xinhua, "The microblogs were shut down for violations that include carrying pornographic images and videos, information for prostitution, as well as illegal advertising for sex-related drugs and productions."

"Members of the public reported the microblogs, which were then investigated and closed by authorities," it added, citing an unidentified official at one of the country's Internet regulators, the State Internet Information Office [Reuters].

Cyber attacks

One of the hot topics of discussion was the issue concerning hacking and cyber attacks. On the eve of the conference, the head of Britain's communications spy agency said UK government and industry computer systems faced a "disturbing" number of such attacks, including a serious assault on the Foreign Office's network [Sky News / Daily Mail].

In his speech to the conference, Prime Minister Cameron described such attacks as "unacceptable".

"We are here because international cyber security is a real and pressing concern. Let us be frank. Every day we see attempts on an industrial scale to steal government secrets – information of interest to nation states, not just commercial organisations."

But David Cameron was far from frank, and failed to point a specific finger at the nation states involved. It was a subject that was raised later when Foreign Secretary William Hague attended a press conference on Wednesday.

Cyber security experts are quite clear that a disproportionate amount of the world's cybercrime appears to emanate from China and a few countries of the former Soviet Union. In the closing press conference a reporter from Sky News asked the Foreign Secretary why the British government had been so coy in naming names.

It was clear the question made him uncomfortable and he looked awkward on stage as he tried to maintain some vestige of diplomatic veneer.

He referred to the question as a belligerent one and said, "We are holding a conference that is not belligerent…" he said. "We are trying to draw countries together in a constructive way… We have not been having a judgmental conference… We are going about this in a diplomatic way…" [WSJ]

It was certainly embarrassing for the Foreign Secretary, who has to balance maintain strong business ties with China while playing a difficult diplomatic wrangle concerning allegations that China is behind cyber attacks.

And there was no shortage of news concerning such attacks this week either. China hit back over US claims that of satellite hacking that emerged last week. "This report is untrue and has ulterior motives. It's not worth a comment," commented Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei at a Monday press briefing. The draft of an annual report by the US-China economic and security review commission, published by Bloomberg last week, included the claim that in October 2007 and July 2008 hackers used a ground station to interfere with the operation of two US government satellites used for earth observation. The commission did not explicitly accuse the Chinese government of orchestrating the attacks, but said they were consistent with Chinese military protocol, according to Bloomberg. [Guardian / Register]

More recently an attack on Japan's parliament was also blamed on China. A report last week said that computers in the lower chamber had been hit by a virus, with passwords and other information possibly compromised. Local media reported last month that politicians' computers and a lower house server had contracted a "Trojan horse" virus containing a program that allowed a China-based server to steal passwords and other information. While it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, the reports said it was possible the China-based server could have been controlled from a third country.

In June, Internet giant Google said a cyber-spying campaign originating in China had targeted the Gmail accounts of senior US officials, military personnel, journalists and Chinese political activists [AFP].

This week Britain's GCHQ said attacks on industry and government were at "disturbing levels". And while William Hague was less willing to point the finger some of his counterparts pulled no punches. Baroness Pauline Neville Jones, the Prime Minister's special representative to business on cybersecurity, said Russia and China were some of the worst culprits involved in cyber attacks. But she also qualified her accusations, saying such attacks could also damage China.

"It's damaging in the end to try and play both sides," she said. "If you are a company that comes from a country like China you can suffer if in the end people believe it's threatening to employ your products." [BBC]

Huawei, the Chinese technology manufacturer, has suffered after concerns that its believed military ties might pose a security risk [WSJ]. There are allegations that some companies are manufacturing products using stolen IP, which could in the long term result in trade embargoes and other difficulties for Chinese firms.

Repercussions could be far worse, of course with some talking of a possible cyber war [Sky News]. The reports of hacking into Foreign Office computers, attributed to Chinese 'super spies' certainly gave the impression of a brewing cold war if nothing else [Guardian].

Meanwhile a report released by Symantec raised other concerns. It inferred the Chinese were behind a concerted attack of Fortune 100 companies involved in research and development of chemical compounds and advanced materials and others involved in military technology.

The report [PDF] said the attack had all the hallmarks of a Chinese hacker and said the source of the attack was possible a server in the Hebei region of China [BBC].

China has long been accused of perpetrating such attacks. This year also several high-profile series of attacks have been blamed on the Chinese. They include the so-called Operation Shady Rat which McAfee said targeted more than 72 victims in a hacking campaign including the governments of the United States, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Canada [BBC / Reuters]. Other targets were the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the International Olympic Committee; and an array of companies, from defence contractors to high-tech enterprises.

For its part China continually refutes such allegations either through editorials in state controlled papers, propaganda pieces suggesting China itself is the victim of hacking, and through strongly worded statements released from the Foreign Ministry.

After details emerged about Operation Shady Rat editorials were published in the People's Daily dismissing the allegations adding that the accusation was "irresponsible" [Reuters].

News concerning this weeks London Cyber conference was somewhat mute on Chinese state media. Xinhua published a piece before it began but failed to follow up with any analysis or debate following the event. Meanwhile it attempted show it too was a victim of cybercrime in another article saying that virus attacks were on the rise.

Vision, Hope & Fears

William Hague had spoken of visions, hopes and fears prior to the London Cyber conference [BBC]. But the event has highlighted more fears than hopes, and prejudice and insularity rather than vision.

Amongst paranoid bloggers there were fears that governments were coming together to shutdown the freedoms of the Internet. It could be argued that politicians have difficulty sorting out the economic malaise that is sweeping the planet, and as such gathering to control the Internet in anything more than a superficial way is unlikely.

On Tuesday William Hague said, "We are all linked by the innumerable connections of the networked world" [BBC]. But by the end of the two day event it appeared the world was more divided than connected.

As well as differences of opinion as to how the Internet might be controlled or restricted there are also physical divisions.

China may have a restrictive Internet, but in many parts of the world penetration of the web is extremely small. African countries in particular are far behind the rest of the world. In Liberia only 0.1% of the population has access to the Internet while in some developed countries access can be as high as 95%.

The world may be more connected than it's ever been but there are still connections to be made. William Hague tried to remain upbeat as the conference ended, highlighting the important issues discussed [transcript - FCO]. There were some things that both individuals and businesses could do themselves especially in terms of security, Hague said [Computer Weekly]. But even he admitted this was only the beginning and that more talks were needed.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: