Country Risk

UN body considers international cyber norms

25 October 2016
In this 5 March 2015 picture, a map of the US shows cyber attacks in real time. The DNC was hacked and confidential data leaked in July 2016, in an attack aimed at the core of the US political system. Source: PA

Key Points

  • The September 2016 meeting of governmental experts is part of a process to establish cyber norms that has been going on since the late 1990s.
  • China, Russia, and the United States all agree in principle that international law, including the UN Charter, should apply to cyberspace.
  • Although China and the US have shown they can work together, Russian behaviour suggests a consensus will not be achieved.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was hacked and confidential data leaked in July 2016, in a highly publicised event that caused serious concern in the United States and around the world. The deliberate leaking of confidential data in an apparent attempt to influence the US election was unprecedented and targeted the core of the US political system.

This was not the first time an election has been the target of hackers, however. In 2014, Ukrainian officials found and removed malware designed to influence the Ukrainian presidential election. Nevertheless, the possibility that somebody would dare to target the United States in a similar fashion seemed unlikely until the July attack. The highest-ranking Democrat in Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, called it an "electronic Watergate".

The cyber attack against the electrical grid in Western Ukraine in December 2015; the destructive malware targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment in December 2014; Stuxnet manipulating the control systems at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran, discovered in 2010; and the use of Distributed Denial of Service attacks to disrupt the Georgian government's websites during the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and to target Estonia in 2007 are all examples of an increasing sophistication of cyber-attack methodology.

The DNC hack was only the latest, albeit a particularly powerful, reminder of how cyberspace can be used for political and military purposes.

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