Why the world needs the cyber equivalent of an international law of the sea

Islands of order in a sea of chaos

I’ve been thinking for the best part of the last decade about Internet governance and its impact on national security. In that time, little has changed to improve security for users.

The Internet as we know it today can be compared in many ways to the high seas during the swashbuckling so-called Golden age of Piracy between around 1650 and 1730 when pirates ruled the Caribbean.

Why is this comparison valid? Because in the Internet today, like on the high seas of yesteryear, there are islands of order surrounded by seas of chaos. The islands of order are the corporate networks like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Ebay etc and those run by competent governments for their citizens. However, between these orderly Internet islands are large areas where there are no rules and where pirates and vagabonds thrive. An additional similarity is that some of the most competent and successful historical pirates operated with the explicit support from countries seeking to further their national aims.

Even those who govern the orderly Internet islands are subject to bold attacks from chaos agents if they are not vigilant! Witness the compromise of Linkedin earlier this year and very few governments have not had some significant compromise affect their operations.

On the high seas, piracy has been reduced significantly since the 18th Century. With the exception of places like the coast of Somalia, there are now far fewer places where there is a significant piracy problem.  There are a number of reasons why this has been a success. Not least of these has been the development of law of the high seas.

In cyberspace, the world also needs to be moving on from the swashbuckling days. Internet criminals need to be hunted down in whichever corner of the Internet they lurk. Additionally, the concept that some countries could give free reign to local cyber-criminals, as long as they don’t terrorise their own countrymen/women, is an anathema in the 21st Century.

The long term solution has remained in my view a cyber version of the  UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. UCLOS is the international agreement, most recently updated in 1982 that governs behaviour by ships in international waters. Apart from other things the convention deals with acts of piracy committed in international waters.

In the same way, a similar international cybercrime convention could deal with acts where the victim was from for example the USA, the criminal from the Vatican and the offence committed on a server in South Korea.

It would seem that at the moment any move towards a UN convention has gone off the boil. A proposal was shot down in 2010 over disagreements around national sovereignty and human rights. As well, the European Union and USA  position was that a new treaty on cyber crime was not needed since the Council of Europe Convention on Cyber Crime had already been in place for 10 years and has been signed or ratified by 46 countries since  2001.

As I recently noted, wariness by both USA and China continues and means that any international agreement which includes Western countries and the BRICs will be a long time coming. China, Russia and other countries submitted a Document of International Code of Conduct for Information Security to the United Nations in 2011 which the USA seems to have dismissed out of hand.

A code of conduct is nice and the Council of Europe convention is a good start, but they need to be supported by some sort of international cyber ‘muscle’ in the long term.

However, all is not lost. In the meantime, working to coordinate the orderly organisations’ defences that I wrote about before, is a practical step that organisations and governments should be doing more of. This is the cyber equivalent of escorting ships through dangerous waters and passing them from one island of order to another.

There’s a good reason for this, and here’s the resilience message. The cyber-security of an organisation does not begin and end at their firewall or outer perimeter. Whilst in most cases an organisation cannot force other organisations to which it is connected to change, it can maintain vigilance over areas outside its direct sphere of control. This then allows the organisation more time to adapt to its changing environment and of course, a chain is only a strong as its weakest link.

The other step to be taken is to help emerging nations and organisations with poor online security to improve their cyber-defences. If the first step was like escorting ships between the orderly islands, this second step is the equivalent of helping nearby islands to improve their battlements so that the pirates don’t take over and then attack us! This work has been going on for some time. I chaired a number of seminars on cyber security and the need for computer emergency response teams for the APEC telecommunication and information working group which began this work in 2003 and this has been carried on by a number of countries around the world in fits and starts, but we need more.

Alex

Published by

Alex Weblng

BSc, BA (Hons), Gdip Comms, GdipEd, ZOP

Alex has 20 years of experience in the Australian Government working in the fields of national security, information and cyber-security, counter-terrorism, , nuclear science, chemical and biological security, protective security and critical infrastructure protection, identity security, biometrics, and resilience.

Alex was the foundation Director of the Australian Government computer emergency response team, GovCERT.au (later CERT Australia). He developed and project managed a world first program to train CERTs in developing APEC countries.

Alex set up the Trusted Information Sharing Network Resilience Community of Interest in 2008 and produced the first Australian Government Executive Guide to Resilience.

Head of Protective Security Policy in 2010, Alex was responsible for launching the revised Protective Security Policy Framework and the single information classification system for the Australian Government.

Alex has both significant experience and tertiary qualifications in the CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) area. He was head of the Chemical Security Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department; responsible for nuclear policy during the construction of the Australian OPAL reactor; and represented the Attorney-General’s Department in the Security Sensitive Biological Agents development process, bringing to it a pragmatic, risk driven approach.

As Director of Identity and Biometric Security Policy, Alex was responsible for developing the successful proposal to expand the Australian Document Verification Service into the private sector in 2012.

Alex has been a member of the Australasian Council of Security Professionals since 2011 and a registered security professional in the area of Security Enterprise Management with the Security Professionals Register of Australasia.