Microsoft's Brad Smith calls for a 'digital Geneva Convention'

As cyberspace becomes the new battlefield, nations should commit to protecting civilians from nation-state attacks in times of peace, he said at the RSA conference.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

With the rise of nation state cyber attacks, it's time for world leaders to assemble a "digital Geneva Convention," said Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, on Tuesday.

"Now is the time for us to call on governments to protect civilians on the internet in times of peace," he said in his keynote address at the RSA conference in San Francisco, Calif.

"Cyberspace is the new battlefield," he said, pointing to the state-sponsored attack on Sony Pictures. "The Sony attack, I believe, in many ways was a turning point... to attack a private company for engaging in freedom of expression around not a terribly popular movie."

The impacts of state-sponsored cyberattacks has only heightened since then, Smith said, referencing Russia's interference in the US presidential election.

So just as governments across the globe are committed to protecting civilians in times of war, they should not commit to protecting civilians from nation-state attacks in times of peace.

There's also an opportunity now for President Donald Trump to sit down with Russian leaders to create new cyberspace norms, Smith said. On the RSA stage, Smith stood in front of a screen that showed an image of President Richard Nixon in China.

Additionally, Smith called on the formation of an organization, akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would bring independent experts from the private and public sectors together to examine cyberattacks.

He also called on the tech industry itself to provide assistance in the way the Red Cross operates. Given that cyberspace is owned and operated by the private sector, "we are the world's first responders" to cyberattacks, he said.

"Even in an age of rising nationalism," Smith said, the tech industry needs to provide a "trusted and neutral 'digital Switzerland'" that the world can rely on to play 100 defense and 0-percent offense.

"We need to be clear we will assist and protect customers everywhere... regardless of the country from which they come," he said. "We need to be clear we will not aid in attacking customers anywhere, regardless of the government that may ask us to do so."

The industry is more united than ever, Smith said, adding that Microsoft "appreciated the leadership Google and Facebook first took with respect to nation-state attacks. We quite obviously adopted what was working for them because we thought it would work for everyone."

He also suggested that the intensified global debate over immigration and borders is bringing the tech world together and puts the sector in a unique position.

"As an industry we in many ways have brought the world together," he said, noting Microsoft has employees from 157 countries. This, he said, "has put us in a position, perhaps, to forge almost a unique level of mutual understanding and respect for the needs of people around the planet."

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