International cyberwar would be "worse than a tsunami" and should be averted by a global cybersecurity peace treaty, according to the head of the International Telecommunications Union.
Hamadoun Touré, who has been secretary-general of the UN agency since 1999 and is up for reelection in a few weeks' time, has targeted cybersecurity issues in his electoral pledges. Speaking at a London roundtable on Thursday, he said he had proposed such a treaty this year, but it had met "a lot of resistance" from industrialised nations.
"My dream, I said in Davos this year, is that I would like to have a cyber peace treaty," Touré said. "Some people think it's a sin. People who think they are secure don't want anyone else to talk about it. I say there is no [online] superpower."
"We need to avoid a cyberwar starting. After the cases of Estonia and Georgia, you need to realise how fragile the world is becoming. A cyberwar will be worse than a tsunami — we have to avoid it," he added.
Hamadoun Touré, pictured speaking at a Westminster Media Forum earlier on Thursday. Photo credit: David Meyer
In 2007, Estonia suffered a series of denial-of-service attacks, which followed its relocation of a statue deemed sensitive to the Russians. Although there were suggestions that the Russian government itself was behind the attacks, which shut down banking systems and also targeted government systems, others believe they were the work of an online flashmob of disgruntled individuals. Georgia's web infrastructure was knocked out in 2008, coinciding with a physical invasion by Russian forces.
The United States set up the US Cyber Command organisation in 2009, in a bid to boost the country's offensive capabilities so it can destroy other countries' electronic infrastructure. The risks associated with cyberattacks are steadily increasing, as countries' energy and utility infrastructures become increasingly hooked up to the internet.
Refusing to name specific countries but hinting that "industrialised countries think they are more protected", Touré pointed out that cyberspace was borderless and criminals can use any territory to perpetrate crimes.
"We're in a new world order today," the Malian head of the UN agency added. "When I see Google and China fight — not China and the US, but a company and a country — it's a new world order. Something new is happening around us: what do we do about it?"
Touré conceded that the idea of a cyber peace treaty is an ideal, but said: "I believe that if you want excellence, you aim for perfection."
The ITU head said he would settle for a "common code of conduct against cybercrime" in which each country would commit to making sure its citizens can get connected to the internet, rather than deny them access. The code would also call on countries to protect citizens against criminals and include a pledge to not harbour terrorists or criminals in their territory. It would also require nations to commit to not attacking another country first.
One reason international cooperation on cybersecurity and cybercrime issues is "very tricky" is that "security has to do with content, and in content issues there are many ethical issues", according to Touré.
"Even the definition of a crime can be different between countries or religions," he said. "Pornography in one country is a crime; in another it's freedom of behaviour."