America the 'indispensable nation' for cybersecurity: Madeleine Albright

The US should take the lead in setting international cyber norms, says Albright, but can't go it alone. International institutions like the United Nations will need to be streamlined.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor
(Image: FireEye)

Former US Secretary of State Dr Madeleine Albright has called for the United States to take a leadership role in creating more robust responses to the challenges of international cybersecurity and disinformation campaigns.

She also used her keynote address to the FireEye Cyber Defense Summit in Washington DC on Wednesday to call for greater participation by the cybersecurity industry in international policy development.

"Together, you are driving the agenda, and helping to determine how we will respond to one of the most complex and important issues of our time, an issue that will do so much to shape our economy and security for this century," she said.

"This is an awful lot of responsibility, and it requires a keen understanding of local and global trends."

Ten years ago, Albright chaired a NATO group of experts which discussed, amongst other thing, the emerging issue of cyber attacks. It was only two years since the Estonian government had suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack while it was locked in a dispute with Russia.

Read: UK and Australia blame Russian GRU for quartet of cyber attacks

"In developing our recommendations for this new strategic concept, we grappled with the question of whether a cyber attack on Estonia, a NATO member, could have triggered the alliance's collective defence provision, whether it really was an Article 5 attack," Albright said.

"We stopped short of declaring that it would be, but in 2016, NATO stated very clearly that a large-scale destructive cyber attack could provoke NATO into a response under Article 5."

Ten years ago, NATO's concern was the potential for a massive, crippling nation-state cyber attack, but Albright says that's changed.

"For all the warnings that were issued about a 'Cyber Pearl Harbor', it appears now that the most immediate threats are attacks that are hard to deter because they stop short of what most would consider an act of war," she said.

"For example, in recent years democracy's enemies have become adept as polluting social media platforms with rumours, disinformation, and anti-democratic propaganda. Of course, disinformation campaigns are hardly novel, however just because a technique isn't new, doesn't mean it's not dangerous."

While Russia is "the pre-eminent practitioner of these dark arts", Albright said, squads of opinion-shapers are also being run by China, North Korea, Philippines, Venezuela, and Turkey, as well as by political extremists and terrorist groups.

"But what we have witnessed in terms of disinformation thus far may be just the beginning. It's becoming almost simple to generate products that show people, including politicians, doing things they didn't do, and saying things they never said ...

"Imagine a foreign agent creeping into your bedroom every night to whisper lies in your ear, and then multiply the number of agents and lies many times over. If a lie is repeated ten times, it can be corrected. If a lie is repeated thousands of times, it risks becoming accepted truth."

See: No Russian interference yet in US midterm elections: FireEye

Albright stressed the importance of international collaboration, but noted that the existing institutions may no longer be structured effectively.

"A lot of people, actually, are very much afraid of the United Nations. They think it has Blackhawk helicopters that swoop down in the middle of the night and steal your lawn furniture. Then there's some people who don't like the UN because it's full of foreigners, which frankly can't be helped," she said.

"Yet today, it seems to me that we should be concerned not with these institutions' power, but by their lack of it, including in matters to do with cybersecurity. Our post-war institutions simply move too slowly for a world that spins at internet speed. If these bodies are not to become obsolete, they must be continually updated, streamlined, and reformed."

Albright also called for more cooperation between governments and private-sector organisations, because so much of the internet and its data is in private hands. She cited work led by Microsoft president Brad Smith to create more robust global rules aimed at counteracting an international cyber arms race.

"I do believe in American leadership. I have believed that all along," she said.

"[I am] somebody that understands that the US is the indispensable nation. By the way there's nothing about the word 'indispensable' that says 'alone'. It just means that we need to be engaged, because we are the most powerful country in the world."

Albright is clearly dissatisfied with the current US administration's attitude and behaviour towards international organisations like NATO.

"Americans don't like multilateralism. It has too many syllables, and it ends in an '-ism'," she quipped.

"Again, it requires us to take a lead, and not just yell at them about not paying."

Albright warned against ignoring the slow but steady rise of nationalism and restrictive immigration policies around the world, comparing it to the emergence of fascism in the 1930s. She quoted fascism's founder, Benito Mussolini: If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.

"There is a lot of feather plucking going on. By the way, you don't want to say those words together too quickly."

Disclosure: Stilgherrian traveled to Washington DC as a guest of FireEye.

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