RSA's security utopia requires China, US to be friends

Countries must set aside their differences and work together to create new norms of behavior in an interconnected digital world, or risk having the current digital chaos "bleed" into the physical world, warns RSA chairman Art Coviello.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Countries need to set aside their differences and work together to create new norms of behavior in an interconnected digital world, or risk losing the potential such a world has to offer. 

Art Coviello, RSA
Acceptable norms of behavior are lacking in the digital world, says RSA's Art Coviello.

RSA Executive Chairman Art Coviello urged the need for greater cooperation between nations and establish national and global policies that are appropriate for the current interdependent economy. He noted that while most governments and businesses recognize the world is more connected today than ever, they continue to behave as if they are not. 

"We haven't really advanced that much in our thinking beyond where we were 100 years ago in the run-up to World War I. We pretend that geography, national identity, and incorporation are still the most meaningful dividing lines, ignoring the fact that the digital world has blurred those lines beyond recognition," Coviello said, during his keynote address Tuesday at the RSA Conference Asia-Pacific in Singapore.

He added that this increasing interdependence had introduced more complexities around norms of behavior, which have yet to be properly developed in the relatively young digital world, compared to the physical world that had centuries to evolve but are far from perfect. 

For this reason, there has been much anxiety and uncertainty especially toward security-related incidents in the digital world. Coviello noted, for instance, the ethical implications of the way countries such as the U.S. and China gather digital intelligence, amid uncertainty over what is considered the responsible role of governments.

There is also ambiguity over what is acceptable behavior of businesses in the digital world, resulting in public uproar when companies such as Facebook take actions deemed to erode user privacy. 

"As civilized people, we must have the same abhorrence to cyberwar as we do nuclear and chemical war."

~ Art Coviello, RSA

Such chaos arise due to the lack of agreed norms of behavior and if unresolved, could bleed into the physical world, he warned, noting that the cracks are already showing. He pointed to the deteriorating relationship between China and the U.S., bringing to a halt both countries' nascent efforts to fight cybercrimes. "Trust me, both nations are the poorer for it," Coviello said. He added that long-standing relationships between the U.S. and European countries also had become strained amid increasing distrust about each other's digital agenda and activities.

Criminal syndicates, terrorists, and hacktivists have benefited from this tensed global environment, he said. As such, there is urgent need to fix the problem and start establishing acceptable norms of behavior. 

Reiterating key points he had unveiled during the U.S. leg of the RSA conference in February, Coviello underlined four key principles he believed should serve as the foundation for digital norms of behavior:

  1. Renounce use of cyber weapons and internet for waging war.
  2. Cooperate internationally in the investigation, apprehension, and prosecution of cybercriminals.
  3. Ensure economic activities can proceed unfettered, and intellectual property rights are respected globally.
  4. Respect and ensure privacy of all individuals. 

Coviello, however, acknowledged it would be tough getting nations to reach a consensus and adopt a set of internationally accepted rules of engagement. Noting that there's no doubt in anyone's mind that major economic powers can produce weapons and, hence, cyberweapons, he said he wasn't suggesting weapons should be eliminated.

Rather, he urged the need to have the "same level of disgust" most had toward physical weapons to also be directed at cyberweapons. "As civilized people, we must have the same abhorrence to cyberwar as we do nuclear and chemical war," he said. "I'm not talking about these principles as some utopian vision of the future. No nation will or should act unilaterally. The lack of trust and...conflicting ambitions of so many will make adoption a difficult task...a task made even more difficult by the lack of constructs for proving attribution of actions online."

"This is not easy. If it's easy, we would have fixed it [by now]. What I'm saying is the status quo cannot continue."

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