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Beijing’s Export of Surveillance Technology

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How would you feel if your every move and decision were being tracked, recorded, and ranked? Nobody really wants a camera to follow them everywhere they go. Welcome to China where the Chinese government is experimenting a new system of surveillance as part of its overt and covert expansion of government intervention and surveillance. Alarmingly, this surveillance system is increasingly showing up all around the world.

China is widely expanding its surveillance network to strengthen and maintain vigilance of its entire populous by tracking peoples’ movements through cellphones and monitoring content of telephonic conversations and emails. Attempts by the government to transform the internet into a system of surveillance and censorship represent a fundamental threat to media freedom and democracy at large.

Cities in China are under the heaviest CCTV surveillance in the world, according to a new analysis by Comparitech, which provides information for research and comparative analysis of tech services. It has been widely reported that China today has about 200 million CCTV cameras in use, a figure predicted to rise 213% by 2022 to 626 million. China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people. However, the Comparitech report suggests the number could be far higher.

These monitoring systems are tighter and heavier handed in Tibet.

Another striking corroboration of China’s sophisticated surveillance system is the widespread use of highly advanced cameras with artificial intelligence which have facial recognition system and can estimate people’s age, ethnicity and gender. These cameras can run recognition systems that match you with your relatives and your associates and within no time pull out a list of people you frequently meet. These invisible eyes that follow you, wherever you go and whatever you do make you suffocated and generate a strong and lasting sense of fear.

The Chinese government admits that the technology using facial recognition, body scanning, and geo-tracking are matched with personal data to keep tab on people in real life and online. Their master plan is to use these technologies as the backbone of their nascent social credit system.

Social credit system

Since Xi Jinping tightened his power grip on technology and surveillance many new notorious strategies to suppress the freedom of expression have been implemented. These include the introduction of new cyber security law, the launch of Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the initiation of a social credit system – a score-based system relying on the adoption of desired behavior based on social merit. This system both punishes and rewards key behaviors through a range of initiatives such as public shaming, travel bans, limited or extended business opportunities, and favorable or devalued credit ratings. The ultimate goal is to hammer into citizens the idea that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful”

The point system citizens will incentivise lawfulness, integrity, and trustworthiness with real time impacts on what citizens can and can’t do. Perks like good behavior could lead to privileges of faster internet services, travel ticket booking convenience in flights and trains, and even concessions on advance deposits for renting cars and booking hotels. Having a low social credit score could mean restrictions on traveling, refusal of passport, difficulty in getting employment and being publicly shamed among others.

China’s National Public Credit Information Center reported that it had cancelled airline tickets of 17.5 million people due to their unproductive scores and 5.5 million were barred from booking train tickets in 2018 because of low social credit scores.

China’s technological power grip around the world

For the Communist Party of China the key motive for gathering, analyzing and evaluating data is to preempt and uncover any threat to the social and political stability of its iron grip on China. It is indeed for the first that a government is employing highly advanced technology to expand internet surveillance and censorship to maintain the stability of own rule. China uses surveillance technology to spy on human right defenders, dissidents, and lawyers, deny freedom of speech and subvert anti-communist party campaigns. This abuse of technology fundamentally undermines democracy and threatens human rights.

According to the People’s Daily, the party-owned largest newspaper group in China, the Chinese capital of Beijing is now completely covered by surveillance cameras that watch over “every corner of Beijing city”.

Authoritarian governments across the globe are acquiring state of the art technologies to repress dissent at a rapid pace. For construction of “Smart Cities” in Pakistan, Philippines and Kenya, Chinese companies including Huawei and ZTE are involved in supplying extensive built-in surveillance technologies. Bonifacio Global City in the Philippines outfitted by Huawei has internet-connected cameras that provide “24/7 intelligent security surveillance with data analytics to detect crime and manage traffic.”

Surveillance built with loans from the Chinese Government

Chinas export of surveillance technology began in 2008 during the Beijing Olympic where it marketed its surveillance mechanisms and ‘solutions’.  Prior to the Olympics, 300,000 new cameras were installed in the capital. China then invited many foreign officials to observe the effectiveness of its new authoritarian technologically advanced tools. Since then, the Party has exported its ‘solutions’ to many countries with severe human rights records including but not limited to Ecuador, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kenya, Iran, and Zimbabwe.

China’s collaboration with authoritarian governments across the globe to build large-scale surveillance systems has given rise to global threats to free speech and privacy.

In his research, Prof. Steven Feldman from Boise State University’s School of Public Service found that China is exporting AI-equipped surveillance technology to at least 54 countries around the world with government types ranging from closed authoritarian to flawed democracies”

With China’s help Ecuador now has a new surveillance system, ECU-911 meant to expand automated policing and reduce crime rates. This $200 million deal was jointly signed by China’s State-controlled C.E.I.E.C and Huawei, and funded by Chinese loans in exchange for Ecuador providing them with their principal export, oil. Ecuador’s surveillance systems were not only made in China, but were installed by Chinese companies and workers. Chinese even trained the Ecuadorians how to use it.  

China’s export of advanced technologies is a show of strength and capability to the world. It represents the country’s ability to compete with established powers (notably the US) in important sectors, reducing dependency and promoting self-reliance. However, Chinese companies often lack transparency and, most importantly, are without a doubt subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party.

The seriousness of the perceived security threats from Chinese technology companies is evident from the US’s notable restriction or outright prohibition of companies such as Huawei. The US has also encouraged its allies to do the same. Australia, Great-Britain, New-Zealand, the US, and Canada have all adopted measures to restrict the use of Huawei devices and Chinese infrastructure. 

Security implications of the export of Chinese surveillance systems

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly extended domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever-lower prices. With China’s global outreach, the domestic systems are spreading far and wide.

Loans from Beijing have made surveillance technology available to governments that could not have previously afforded it. Adding to this lucrative deal is China’s total lack of transparency and accountability of its use. This rapid development and export of China’s surveillance equipment is helping strengthen a future of tech-driven repression, potentially leading to the loss of privacy.

CCP’s export of surveillance systems to willing governments around the globe has given rise to significant national security risks for individual states as a result from their extensive reliance on and cooperation with Chinese state-owned enterprises or CCP member-owned firms in key infrastructure development projects and expansion of the state security apparatus. These high-tech exports including 5G infrastructure, fiber optics, and telecom equipment aid China’s rapidly rising control and influence over its trading partners. Ultimately, these strategic moves could lead up to China’s goal of strengthening its internet sovereignty, securing its position as a great global power; widen its sphere of influence particularly in South-East Asia and Africa with the help of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), promote its economic dominance, and provide an alternative to the United States and its allies.

The advent of modern technology in China granted the government, particularly under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the opportunity to innovate, the expertise to initiate and the free-hand to implement modern surveillance technologies. This new and extremely effective combination of state control apparatus has proven to be incredibly valuable for the Party in tightening security measures, assuring its long-term survival, shaping public opinion, and suppressing resistance.

CCP’s evolving surveillance strategies in Tibet

The iron curtains on Tibet have been shut for a long time and the entire region is off limits for free and independent visits of international media, journalists, advocates, researchers and government and civil society representatives. The highly repressive situation inside Tibet makes it difficult to understand the scope of digital surveillance in the region. Over the years, China’s surveillance system in Tibet has been growing and evolving at an unprecedented scale. The abundance of manned and unmanned checkpoints, AI, CCTV camera networks and re-education centers under the garb of national security have added another layer of control to an already extremely controlled and oppressed environment in Tibet.

Furthermore, the CCP is constantly upgrading its ‘Great Firewall of China’ to monitor and limit online and offline traffic by creating its ‘own’ internet and limiting access to the ‘traditional’ web. Chinese authorities in Tibet are offering large cash rewards to informants in a bid to stamp out online ‘subversive’ activities curbing free flow and dissemination of information. According to a notice issued on Feb 28 by three government departments of the so called Tibet Autonomous Region information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to China can fetch up to 300,000 Yuan ($42,582). People sharing political contents or commentary deemed sensitive they face arrest and heavy criminal penalties.

Surveillance in Tibet and Xinjiang have been widely known as “Orwellian.” In addition to the traditional security surveillance apparatus of the military, police, and neighborhood spies, modern surveillance technologies have been specifically developed and tested in these regions. According to human right reports, tight security measure currently being practiced in Uyghur to suppress the resistance movement were previously successfully developed and practiced in Tibet by Chen Quanquo, TAR’s then party secretary. Following his highly suppressive policies in Tibet, Chen was appointed the party secretary in Xinjiang and continues to be the chief architect of the massive surveillance and mass detention systems in the region.

Spring 2008 witnessed the historic and widespread uprisings in Tibet against China’s rule which were followed by a series of self-immolations by 153 Tibetans demanding the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom in Tibet. These protests prompted China to maximize and fast track the scope and intensity of its security surveillance both in the number of security personnel and digital technology. In January 2012, the central government introduced a new surveillance system called the “grid system of social management”.In preparation of the implementing the new system, cadres in plainclothes were deployed in every Tibetan village and monastery. The campaign ironically called “Benefit the Masses” involved sending some 21,000 communist party cadres from townships and urban areas to live in teams of four or more in each of the 5,000 villages in TAR. Authorities expanded their network of small police posts known as “convenience” stations to every 200-300 meters in urban areas, to quickly respond to any threat. In 2016, a total of 696 convenient police check posts were newly set up.

New digital surveillance efforts include mandatory collection of DNA samples, Wifi network monitoring and widespread implementation of facial and voice recognition to all connected and integrated data analysis platforms. According to Wall Street Journal’s study of police department documents from across China, the Chinese authorities plan to double their current DNA trove to 100 Million records by 2020. DNA sampling of Tibetans on the Tibetan plateau is widespread under the guise of mandatory medical check-ups aimed at controlling the movement of Tibetan people and further restrict their freedom.The author’s interviews with recent arrivals from Tibet confirmed that beginning in July 2013 Tibetans in cities and villages are being asked to undergo free medical checkup and blood samples have been collected.

Tenzin Tsultrim, a researcher at Tibet Policy Institute based in India believes that China might extend its profiling of DNA samples to even foreign tourists, including Tibetans from India and western countries, visiting Tibet.

Also, CCP’s security spending has increased exponentially since 2008. Germany based researcher Adrian Zens has reported that TAR “has had the highest per capital domestic security expenditure of all provinces and regions.” In 2016, per capita domestic security expenses in Sichuan province’s Tibetan regions were nearly three times higher than Sichuan province as a whole”

The author expressed concern over China’s intention to launch Huawei 5G networks in Tibet, which would make it easier to deploy sensors and enable quick transfer of high volumes of data for real-time analysis. Companies facilitating digital surveillance in Tibet include Alibaba, search provider Baidu, chat app operator Tencent holdings, voice recognition company iFlyTek and facial recognition system Sense Time. State subsidies and other government privileges make Tibet a lucrative market for these businesses to invest and employ their latest technologies. Companies operating in Tibet enjoy a highly reduced tax rate of 9% compared to the standard cooperate tax rate of 25% for the rest of China.

Conclusion

The non-transparent and unchecked export and adoption of China’s highly advanced technologies to foreign markets represent severe intelligence and security threats, especially when integrated directly to national security and surveillance apparatuses. China has successfully put at risk the safety and security of dissidents and activists all over the world and strengthened rouge and undemocratic regimes with its export of surveillance technologies.

Another serious danger for states adopting Chinese technologies is their over reliance on foreign technology to run and manage core government systems thus representing a risk to their very sovereignty. CCP has not only been proliferating its methods through free or subsidized hardware, AI technology and training, but has also been gaining insights and direct connection to the information stream of partner-states.

Surveillance information stream can be realistically used in two ways as targeted micro information to gain leverage on important targets and as a means to gather and employ big data; the use of which is essentially endless. In this sense, there is little to no transparency nor accountability and imposes a very high-security threat.

Exporting the surveillance model is also a strategic move by the CCP’s to further test its model, apply it in variable contexts, and gather additional data and intelligence. The Party gains a direct access into partner-states information stream; advantageous information about markets, business opportunities, important actors, etc. and even possibly sensitive information that could be used to persuade or coerce important actors on local or international matters.

The widespread implementation of surveillance, leading to the intrusion of one’s privacy, may become a cause for further unrest in restrictive states. The absence of freedom and opportunities for people to vent their grievances will most likely expound hatred leading to even more collective anger and dissent among suppressed groups.

Inside Tibet, over the last decade, the “nets in the sky and traps on the ground” have further suppressed the fundamental freedoms of expression, movement and assembly. New and highly advanced technologies have given unrestricted and illicit power to the state security apparatus to intensify and escalate mass surveillance. Checkpoints with smart surveillance and facial recognition are present in cities and at crossings between neighboring districts and provinces. Tibetans inside their homes are tracked through their phones and once they step outside surveillance and facial recognition technologies follow them wherever they go. This is the reality of today’s Tibet and if the free world is unwilling to restrict the import of China’s technologies, this could be your reality tomorrow.

Research Fellow Tibet Policy Institute Central Tibetan Administration Dharamshala, Distt. Kangra

Intelligence

Covid 19 and Human Security in Anthropocene era

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Since the end of second World  the focus on international security has grown, not only state threats but also threats from non-state groups such as terrorism groups, cyber attacks, climate change and the environment and what we are living right now is the threat from Covid19 caused by the SARS virus -Cov2, up to the time this article was written has 136.609.182 cases, with the number of deaths 2948567, have killed more victims from the Vietnam War, the Gulf of Persia, the Afghanistan War. Although the optimistic hopes of finding  vaccine for Covid19 provide room for movement and bright light of hope in the future, it has almost entered the two-year mark since its initial presence in Wuhan, China last December 2019, Covid19 is still major concern and scourge for human survival in currently, many people in the world are tired of waiting for when this epidemic will end. Covid19 has become an invisible but real enemy felt by humankind in the early 21st century, more cunning than previous security threats such as physical warfare, trade wars, terrorism and air pollution. There is no difference in price between the rich and the poor, developed or developing countries, women or men, good or bad people. Not only that, the effects of the Covid19 virus pandemic are also greater, such as inflation, scarcity of goods, uneventful mobility, a decline in the tourism sector, changes in human social behavior patterns, bilateral and multilateral relations between countries, as well as causing conflict and new attention to certain institutions. What is still a question in our minds right now is why Covid 19 still exists in the world, when will this pandemic be over and what will the conditions be after.

So far, the Covid19 outbreak is still seen as a global disease so that international security means providing efficient health care and the answer is how to prevent and find anti-viruses. But in essence, the presence of Covid19 explains more than that. Covid19 is also an impact of an environmental crisis that humans are rarely aware of, because basically Covid19 is a zoonotic disease (disease originating from animals) that can pass to humans through vectors (carriers) in the form of animals or humans, which humans are the last result of a series of cycles. viral life. Its presence identifies the irregular relationship between humans and their environment.

Concerns about the emergence of zoonotic diseases have existed for several years. In the 2016 UNEP Frontier Report, it was stated that one of the concerns that arose from international agencies dealing with the environment was zoonotic diseases. Since the 20th century, 75% there has been a drastic increase in infectious diseases which are zoonotic diseases of animal origin. On average, an animal-to-human infectious disease appears every four months. This is closely related to environmental changes or ecological disturbances such as defortation, climate change, decreased biodiversity, and the destruction of animal habitats.

In an interview with VoA Indonesia with one of the virologists at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Indonesia (Sugyono) stated that the “Covid19 virus that is currently endemic in the world is due to interactions with humans and animals such as poaching and environmental damage. Some of the infectious diseases that hit the world are caused by pathogens of disease-carrying microorganisms that originate or spread through animals. Bats, mice, monkeys and other animals often become carriers of viruses to humans without the animals experiencing illness, the process of interaction between animals and humans such as poaching causes disease transmission. mutates due to climate change and weather ”. Viruses are small infectious agents with a simple composition that can only reproduce in host cells. Its survival is influenced by temperature and environment, changes in temperature and the environment can accelerate its spread.

Humans are the only creatures that can manage the earth, their presence since ancient times has greatly influenced the state of the earth both on land and in the oceans. In one of their journals Paul Crutzen stated that we (humans) are no longer in the Holocene but have entered the Anthroposcene era. The term Anthroposcene itself implies a transition from the Holocene which is an interglacial condition, influenced by the magnitude of human activity, further this intention is explained by Steffen that the Anthroposcene shows where human activities have become so numerous and intensive that they (humans) rival the great power of nature. The Anthroposcene shows that a crisis originates from human accident and this crisis is not an easy thing to mitigate.

Covid 19 is not a disaster or natural selection that can be understood to occur naturally but identifies more deeply than that, the presence of Covid19 demands that international security policies and practices must evolve beyond what they have understood so far. Although the threat of a pandemic is not new, the current pandemic is popularly referred to as “unprecedented.” It is currently uncertain when Covi 19 will end or at least be brought under control. Almost all diseases and disasters caused by environmental damage such as nuclear, severe pollution in several countries such as America, in Tokyo, Beijing, Jakarta, and other big cities cannot return to the way it was before the damage occurred, can only reduce the impact. If  revisit history further back, the earlier nations that had high civilization such as Central America, the people of the Easter islands, the Maya, the Anasazi, the Greek Mikene and many other civilizations also became extinct. What is modern society doing today is similar to what previous civilization nations did, accidental “ecological suicide” resulting in  drastic reduction in the size of the human population and political, economic, social complexity in over large area. Nature actually did a selection at its time and it (nature) was also able to regenerate itself within a certain period of time, but  if humans interfere in the process too deep  will change and disrupt the normal working system of nature which will have a bad effect back on humans.

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COVID-19 As an Agent of Change in World Order

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Image: Alexandra Nicolae/Unsplash

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has claimed millions of lives. It has severely damaged the economy of the world. The consequences of the pandemic are expected to go much further. The virus has threatened the functioning of national and international politics. It has disrupted the international system through which events are controlled in the world. In one way or the other, all the fundamental constituents of the World Order have been reshaped. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, forewarned, “The coronavirus epidemic will forever alter the world order.”

COVID-19 could potentially vary the following aspects of the existing World Order.

Cooperation

COVID-19 easily crossed international borders. It has been observed that states cooperated with each other on the strategy of containing the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) played an important part in integrating the states on the issue of contemporary health emergency. The WHO remained an ineffectual organization when the United States, under the presidency of Donald Trump, withdrew from it. Bringing the US back in the WHO was among the first presidential orders given by President Joe Biden.

Some scholars, on the other hand, view this warm cooperation by the US in the international arena as a facade for uniting to oppose the rise of China. The ‘America first’ approach of Donald Trump meant American protectionism. Joe Biden is said to have used the opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic to walk in step with allies in Asia.

Security

Power-practicing states have rarely downright inclined towards the standards of human security defined by the United Nations in its 1994 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development report. The report lays down the basic tenets of human security. Food, economic and health security are among important entities of human security. The pandemic has facilitated in proving the momentous nature of international institutions and cooperation. Security, therefore, has been redefined. The priorities have been shifted to health security.

Balance of Power

One may assume that in these trying times of the pandemic the states have come closer to fight the disease. However, this claim is not validated by hard-boiled political thinkers. Disruptions in the global economy tend to destabilize international politics, therefore, conflicts are likely to increase in the post-Covid world. For instance, the ongoing economic competition between the US and China is likely to continue to soar as the two states begin to engage in the ‘New Cold War’. The US has put blame on China for the spread of the coronavirus. Trump had repeatedly termed the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’. To neutralize the blame, China is active in the research and development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The crisis has facilitated China in showing the world its capability. In the long run, this could sway the balance of power.

However, neither China nor the United States is in a state in which it could emerge as a ‘winner’ in a way that would dramatically shift the balance of world power in favour of either state.

Vaccine Race

The production of mass-scale COVID-19 vaccine is no less than a race of the order of space race or arms race. Manufacturing COVID-19 vaccine is not only a matter of saving lives, but also a matter of saving face for some world leaders. Russia, US, UK, Germany, India and China are among the top competitors in the vaccine race. Vladimir Putin, Russian President, is eager to debut the vaccine to the world. It would be a sign of prestige in the international society and help Russia impose the new world order it vies for. Similarly, China has its own ambitions to lead the world, and inoculating the world is one way to do it.

The redistribution of power in post-Covid world will be dependent on states’ accomplishment in curbing the virus.

Financial World Order                                                        

The World Bank has estimated a 5.2% shrinkage in the global economy due to COVID-19 pandemic. Both the United States and China are eager to restore their Covid-hit economies in a way that one’s is greater than the other. In a substantial way, the United States is leading the world economy. It is one-fourth of the world economy. 80% of world trade is in USD. China aims to alter this mode of payment in international trade. It is giving competition to the US in terms of global trade exchange by building banks of its own. The pace of economic recovery adopted by the two competitors shall decide the post-Covid financial world order.

Dependency

Both the United States and China need allies to compete in the ‘New Cold War’. The COVID-19 pandemic has given them the opportunity to make allies via health assistance. The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facilities plan to distribute a major share of the vaccination to low and middle income countries. In July, 2020, China promised a $1 billion loan to Latin American and Caribbean countries. The US is also keen on this practice as Joe Biden is a strong advocate of global institutionalism.

COVAX could be a novel form of a bailout package. If this is so, the dependence of the Third World on the First World is likely to be increased.

Technology

As an agent of latent function, Covid has helped boost innovation. The states who have better technology are odds-on to impose their World Order. During the COVID-19 crisis, there has been an exponential growth in technology adoption. This implies that the military will have better strategic equipment than pre-Covid era. In modern international relations, military strength is the core determinant of state power.

Health as element of national power

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the elements of state power were either military strength or economy. The pandemic has shown that health can also be an indirect element of national power. The states with better healthcare have better chances of containing the virus. Their economy has better prospects of getting restored. Resultantly, the ‘healthy’ states have advantage over others in carrying on with their power politics.

Climate Change                                           

Due to closure of industrial sectors in the lockdown period, the global economy has collapsed. In the initial stage, it was expected that the lockdown will be a blessing in disguise for the cause of climate change. To restore the economy, however, governments of both developed and developing countries have no option but to reopen their industries. This means more emissions of carbon. The climate agreements are likely to be postponed until the economy is put back on track. The oil price decrease due to the pandemic will facilitate the poorer states in restoring their industries. This is another impediment in the way of a carbon-free global economy. Thus, the post-Covid world will have adverse effects on climate.

Threat to the political Right

The pandemic has proved to be unfortunate for the rising Right. Populism, nationalism and demagoguery do not seem to be working for the right wing leaders. The COVID-19 pandemic requires performance and output rather than speeches and slogans. This is so evident from the 2020 US Presidential elections. Donald Trump had been highly criticized for being a populist leader. His handling of the pandemic is one of the main factors that cost him the election. Similarly, in other parts of the world, people are demanding good governance rather than falling for rabble-rousers.

End of Globalization?

Globalization has severely been affected due to the pandemic. However, the process of globalization was slowing long before the pandemic, even before the election of anti-internationalist former US President Donald Trump. Some scholars are predicting the end of globalization due to the pandemic. Others argue that the pandemic shows how interconnected the world is. They see a potential growth in globalization and cooperation among the states, especially regarding the COVAX. Historical data show that crises tend to reinforce globalization. Globalization also helps to boost the fallen economy. Employment is an important part of globalization. There has been a significant surge in unemployment rate due to the lockdown imposed to cease the spread of the virus. To rectify the damages, people will tend to cross international borders. Therefore, immigration and, consequently, globalization is likely to increase in the post-Covid world.

COVID-19 pandemic alone may not change the World Order altogether. The transitions brought by the pandemic in the international system are likely to decide the leader of global political order. The post-Covid World Order depends on how and how fast the world emerges out of the pandemic. Vaccinating the world is the need of the hour. The contenders of the vaccine race need to be all-inclusive in the process of inoculation. If the United States or China succumbs to vaccine nationalism—the practice to limit the dosage of COVID-19 vaccine to domestic use— it will be difficult for them to ally other states in their vision of the new World Order.

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Broad Cyber-Consensus

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On Friday March 12, 2021, the United Nations adopted the report of the UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. The document was supported by consensus and, since all member states were able to take part in the OEWG, we can say that it reflects the views of most of the international community. The report marks the culmination of the OEWG’s two years of work on introducing a new format for negotiations on security in cyberspace launched in 2018 at the initiative of Russia. The successful completion of the group’s work suggests that demand for such a platform exists. This is particularly important, given that the OEWG will continue its activities in the new convocation for 2021–2025.

A Victory for Diplomacy

Andrey Krutskikh, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Issues of International Cooperation in the Field of Information Security, called the adoption of the report “a triumphant success for the Russian diplomacy,” while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lauded the significance of the moment in its official commentary.

To better understand why the adoption of the report has exactly seen such a success, we need to take a trip into the recent past. The issue of information security was included in the UN agenda in 1998, after Russia presented its draft resolution “Achievements in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security” to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Negotiations have been ongoing since 2004 in the form of closed discussions in Groups of Government Experts (GGEs) involving between 15 and 25 states (the seventh composition of the GGE is expected to conclude its work in May 2021).

The negotiations started to pick up steam in the early 2010s, as three GGE consensus reports have shown. For example, the 2010 GGE report’s recommendations included furthering the dialogue among states on cyber norms, introducing confidence-building measures, exchanging information on national legislation and policies as well as identifying measures to support capacity-building in less developed countries as a means to reduce the risks associated with the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). The 2013 report reflected the OEWG’s conclusion that international law “is applicable and is essential to maintaining peace and stability and promoting an open, secure, peaceful and accessible ICT environment” (while conceding that a common understanding on the application of these rules needs to be worked out), and that state sovereignty applies to the conduct of ICT-related activities by states. Among other things, the 2015 report sets out the norms, rules or principles of responsible behaviour of states in the context of the ICT use.

The UN negotiating process on cyber threats stalled after 2015. The fifth convocation of the GGE in 2016–2017 failed to accept a consensus report, as the participants disagreed on how international law should be applied to state activities in cyberspace. This led to the United States and Russia putting forward separate initiatives in 2018. The United States and its co-sponsors proposed that the next GGE be convened to continue the discussion in a narrower circle. Meanwhile, Russia called for the negotiating process to be “more democratic, inclusive and transparent.” To this end, Moscow tabled a proposal to create an open-ended working group for all member states interested and hold consultative meetings for all other interested parties, namely business, non-governmental organizations and academia. Two parallel formats were launched as a result – the OEWG and the UN GGE.

The OEWG report is the first tangible result of the UN negotiations on cyber threats since 2015, which was made possible by a number of factors. First, the overwhelming majority of UN member states were interested in such a format (119 nations voted in favour of the Russia-drafted resolution in 2018), as it would avail many of them the opportunity to participate in a GGE for the first time.

Second, those countries that refrained from supporting the OEWG were nevertheless active in its work, and they put no obstacles in the way of adopting the final document. Representatives of 91 states spoke at OEWG meetings during the two years of its work. That is almost half of all UN member states, while one third of them have never been part of the GGE.

Finally, Jürg Lauber, Chairman of the OEWG and Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, was widely praised for the work he did to push the negotiations through. He continued to perform his duties as Chairman even after being transferred from New York to Geneva. It was through Lauber’s chairmanship that an additional link between the OEWG and the GGE was established (one of the criteria for choosing Switzerland was the country’s participation in the closed GGE), which helped avoid competition between the two formats. The coronavirus pandemic posed yet another challenge for the Chairman of the OEWG and its participants. While the original plan was to adopt the OEWG in the summer of 2020, the final session of the Working Group was postponed for several months.

Let the Talks Continue

Content-wise, the report reflects the coordinated assessments of the current situation in cyberspace and, in accordance with the OEWG’s mandate, contains the following topics:

  • Existing and Potential Threats
  • Rules, Norms and Principles for Responsible State Behaviour
  • International Law
  • Confidence-Building Measures
  • Capacity-Building in ICT
  • Regular Institutional Dialogue on ICT

The OEWG participants agree that there is a growing risk of ICT being used in inter-state conflicts and see an increase in the malicious use of ICT both by state and non-state actors as an alarming trend. The report notes the potentially devasting consequences of attacks on critical information infrastructure (CII). Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting the healthcare infrastructure. Inter-state interaction, as well as interaction between the state and the private sector, is important.

However, the OEWG report does not put forward any practical solutions to a number of information security problems, primarily in inter-state relations. The way international law should be applied in cyberspace largely remains a bone of contention. Despite the successful adoption of the OEWG report, negotiators have yet to find compromises on key issues.

In terms of the regulatory framework, the report essentially reiterates the agreements reached earlier within the framework of the GGE, such as those relating to the applicability of the rules, norms and principles for responsible state behaviour. The OEWG participants conclude the report by stating that additional legally binding obligations may be introduced in the future.

The proposals put forward in the report are, for the most part, of a general nature. States are urged to continue to inform the Secretary-General of their national views on the applicability of international law on the use of ICT in the context of international security, discuss these issues at the United Nations as well as envision confidence- and capacity-building measures.

More practical steps feature the recommendation that states nominate a national Point of Contact responsible for information security at the technical, policy and diplomatic levels who would then be included into a kind of international directory.

A group of over 40 countries led by France and Egypt managed to get an initiative of their own—proposed back in the fall of 2020 and urging to introduce a permanent forum on cybersecurity to replace the OEWG and GGE—included in the recommendations. The initiative, dubbed as the Programme of Action for Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in Cyberspace, appears in one of the paragraphs in the OEWG report, which lends weight to it and serves as the basis for discussions in the next convocation of the group.

One of the main reasons why we have not seen any breakthrough agreements in this regard is because of the sheer number of participants in the discussion on information security issues. On the one hand, this has brought new participants into the negotiations—those endorsing the previously agreed points—thus boosting their international clout. On the other hand, many participants demanded that a common denominator be identified, with all the difficult questions taken off the table. The last leg of the negotiations, in particular, saw a non-consensus draft part of the report published in a separate document, the Chair’s Summary.

The fact that the report was adopted by consensus does not mean that the participants in the negotiations have overcome the differences in their approaches to security in cyberspace. Rather, they have agreed to put fundamental issues on the back burner. Michele Markoff, U.S. cybersecurity negotiator, conceded in her Explanation of Position at the Conclusion of the UN Open-Ended Working Group that the report was “not perfect,” noting that the United States had reservations about the need for a new OEWG to convene. She also stated that the United States could not subscribe to calls for new legal obligations in cyberspace, citing non-compliance on the part of certain states with the existing regulations. That notwithstanding, the United States sees the report as a step forward.

Negotiations after Negotiations

Negotiations on cyber threats have now been going on for decades, broth at the United Nations and on other venues, and they are likely to drag on for many years to come. The OEWG report is an important milestone in the process and a reminder of the importance of multilateral efforts. According to Andrey Krutskikh, the successful completion of the group’s work “opens up huge opportunities for ensuring the success” of the current GGE, the Expert Group on Cybercrime—established during negotiations at the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee at the initiative of Russia—and the OEWG, whose mandate for 2021–2025 has been adopted.

Success or failure of future negotiations in the OEWG will depend on three main components. First, the relations between the key players will define how productive the talks actually are. While Russia and the United States may have managed to put their differences aside in order to reach a consensus on the report, the differences themselves have not gone anywhere. The sides still bang heads over such issues as attribution in cyberspace, the possibility of applying the norms of international humanitarian law to cyberattacks, etc. This is made all the worse by the new trend towards using the ICT for military and intelligence purpose as well as by numerous public accusations and threats emanating from both sides. One such example is the recent New York Times article on U.S. preparations for a retaliatory attack on Russian networks following the large-scale hack of U.S. government departments and corporations (known as the SolarWinds hack), which Russia is said to have carried out. Cybersecurity remains a sore point in U.S.–China relations as well. Tensions between major powers need to be reduced if we are to see any real progress in multilateral relations on this issue.

The second factor is related to the competition between the negotiating platforms. The OEWG has the advantage that is enjoys broad support among UN members, and its mandate has been written into the respective Resolution of the General Assembly. That said, the GGE format is also widely supported within the United Nations, and the “Russian” resolution received fewer votes in the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly last year than it had in 2018, while the “American” resolution actually received more. What is more, the United Nations does not have a monopoly when it comes to negotiating platforms on cybersecurity, as a number of non-governmental initiatives on cyberspace regulation have appeared in recent years. France is actively pushing the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which has the support of almost 80 nations as well as of many civil society organizations and companies. Six working groups are to be launched under the initiative in order to advance international norms and develop practical cooperation in cybersecurity. The competitive environment will mean that the OEWG will need to produce more tangible results in areas that are important for the participants.

The third and final factor has to do with preserving the gap between the practical side of ensuring information security and the international discussion surrounding it. Tech companies face cyberthreats on a daily basis, but their expertise in dealing with these challenges is not in demand at these negotiating platforms. The OEWG report talks about the need for public-private partnerships in order to protect the CII. However, the OEWG could take this one step further by examining the lessons of the responses of the business world to large-scale cyberattacks and by speaking their minds when it comes to assessing the efforts of technology leaders to advance rules and norms in cyberspace. The OEWG has the potential to bridge this gap (the new group’s mandate allows it to work with business and other stakeholders), but it has not been exploited to the full thus far. The most active player in the first convocation from the business world was Microsoft, while Trend Micro, Huawei, Fujitsu and others have also taken part in informal consultations. Kaspersky Lab is the only Russian company involved in the discussions. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes it is necessary “to create conditions for attracting the business world to the negotiation process on international information security (IIS), thus giving the public-private partnership an institutional character.” Two problems will first need to be resolved for this to happen: 1) how to motivate Russian businesses to take part in the negotiations; and 2) how to organize the interaction of different stakeholders in the OEWG in the most effective manner. Otherwise, the efforts of all sides will continue to lack the much-needed link to practical experience in this area.

From our partner RIAC

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