UK Seeks Global Accord on Cyber Behavior

Britain is to call for countries to agree rules for “acceptable behaviour” in cyberspace amid concern about what is seen as a growing security threat. William Hague, UK foreign secretary, will offer to host a conference in London this year “to lay the basis for a set of standards on how countries should act in cyberspace”.

To underline the seriousness of the threat to governments and businesses, Mr. Hague gives three examples of attacks on British interests, including those directed at his staff and a defence contractor.

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Although he does not name the states behind the attacks, leaked US diplomatic cables have detailed allegations of cyberattacks and intrusion by China and Russia.

Work is already under way by international bodies to develop conventions on discrete cyber issues, but no foreign minister has called for a comprehensive set of principles that can govern the internet worldwide.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference on Friday, Mr. Hague will urge nations to adopt standards that protect internet freedom and contain the “darker side of cyberspace”.

“There is a need for a more comprehensive, structured dialogue to begin to build consensus among like-minded countries,” he will say.

However, a formal arms control-style agreement, enshrined in an international treaty, is viewed as an unlikely outcome by British officials, given the difficulty of verifying its terms.

Any agreement faces a high diplomatic hurdle because it must forge a consensus on a threat that is fast-changing, often anonymous, and intertwined with sovereign rights and the covert operations of intelligence services.

Internet-based threats are racing up the national security agenda for many industrialised nations, prompting the US to set up a Cyber Command and the UK to establish a defence cyber operations group.

The Stuxnet worm that damaged Iran’s nuclear facilities, and is widely thought to have been launched by the US and Israel, has also revealed the disruptive power of malicious software.

“We do not underestimate the difficulties ahead,” Mr. Hague will say. “Many countries do not share our view of the positive, democratising impact of the internet, and others are actively working against us in a hostile manner.”

Nigel Inkster, an expert on cyber threats at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “Thus far, the discussion on how to set international standards on cyber has been very low profile and largely confined to the margins of the UN General Assembly. What Hague [will say] ratchets it up the agenda and gives it an international prominence.”

He added: “There is clearly a case for agreeing some norms of conduct on the internet which reduce the risk that actions will be taken that cross red lines. If this initiative results in some clearly agreed red lines then that would be very good.”