President Donald Trump first announced and then stepped back from a plan to consult with the Russian government on cybersecurity this week, prompting jeers from critics who say it could be dangerously counterproductive to sit down with America’s greatest cyber adversary.
Trump’s idea was not all bad, however, numerous cyber experts and former officials tell Nextgov.
While those experts uniformly rejected the idea of sharing any cyber intelligence with the Russians or cooperating on a “cybersecurity unit” as Trump proposed after a meeting during the G20 Summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a U.S.-Russia cyber working group could serve other important functions, they said.
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U.S. and Russian officials could discuss “cyber red lines” that would prompt a military response from one nation if the other crossed them, for example, the experts said. The nations could also establish lines of communication to guard against a misunderstanding about one nation’s cyber spying or digital meddling escalating to a nondigital military conflict.
The U.S. and Russia previously had such a working group, launched in 2013, but it fizzled after the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.
“The idea of technical security cooperation with Russia is silly,” said Robert Knake, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
On the other hand, “the idea of a working group on cybersecurity issues and restarting discussions with Russia and looking to put in place capabilities that might reduce conflict and improve communication is worthwhile,” he said.
President Barack Obama made a similar diplomatic push on cyber issues with Chinese leaders after the Justice Department indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for hacking U.S. companies, Knake noted.
That diplomatic push, coupled with the threat of sanctions, also came after Chinese hackers allegedly breached millions of sensitive security clearance documents at the Office of Personnel Management. The result was a bilateral agreement the U.S. and Chinese governments would not hack each other’s companies for economic gain—an agreement the Chinese have, at least partly, complied with, cybersecurity firms report.
“There’s a belief by some people, and possibly by the Russians, that engaging in a dialogue means all is forgiven; that’s now how the U.S. government works,” Knake said. “One part of the FBI can be engaging in ministerial dialogues on how to improve cybercrime while another may be working on indictments at the highest levels of the Kremlin. Those can continue concurrently.”
Why Don’t We Call the Whole Thing Off?
Trump tweeted soon after meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit on Sunday that he and the Russian leader “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.”
The president backed off that statement the same day, however, tweeting: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't.”
Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Monday the administration had backed off the idea, but declined to say it was dead.
“Discussions may still take place but that’s as far as it is right now,” she said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used more cautious language to describe the proposal during a press conference, calling it a State Department-led working group that would explore broad cyber threats related to nation-state cyber conflict, infrastructure protection and the threat of cyber terrorism.
The State Department typically deals with high-level cybersecurity issues such as promoting norms of good behavior in cyberspace and opposing internet censorship—not topics such as sharing information about individual malware strains and computer vulnerabilities or tracking international hacking syndicates that an adversary nation could later use against us.
Those issues are typically handled by the Homeland Security and Justice departments and intelligence agencies.
No Diplomatic Victory
Even the more narrowly focused group described by Tillerson is a step too far for some cyber watchers in light of the ongoing conflict about Russian cyber meddling during the 2016 presidential election, including hacking and selectively releasing information from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the importance of that election meddling and questioned U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that top levels of the Russian government were behind it.
Russia’s continued belligerence in Ukraine also makes the risks of giving the U.S.’ former Cold War adversary the appearance of a diplomatic victory outweigh the working group’s possible benefits, said Michael Schmitt, director of the Tallinn Manual process, which convenes legal experts from numerous nations to sort out how international law ought to apply in cyberspace.
So, too, does Russian support for the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, he said.
Schmitt, who is a U.S. Naval War College professor, is also highly skeptical such a working group could accomplish anything.
The major international forum where nations debate applying rules to cyberspace, the United Nations’ Group of Governmental Experts process, concluded its 2017 meetings without reaching consensus—even about the basic application of international law to cyberspace—just a few weeks ago, he noted.
In the wake of that failure, White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said the U.S. would concentrate more on bilateral cyber agreements with nations rather than large, multilateral meetings.
Schmitt does think the U.S. should discuss cybersecurity issues with Russia, he said, but only through normal diplomatic channels rather than in a high-profile working group.
“I think it would be pointless and I do believe it would publicly reward them,” Schmitt said. “I’m still at the ‘we should be naming and shaming [Russia] with clarity’ stage. The Russians tried to manipulate our electoral process and we should have imposed some cost on them beyond expelling diplomats [as Obama did at the end of his term].”
Other Stumbling Blocks
The U.S. would face other stumbling blocks to any cyber agreement with Russia.
U.S. officials have generally favored placing restrictions on nations using cyberspace to lay the groundwork for future military advantage—such as digitally booby trapping adversaries’ financial firms and energy plants—and on nations hacking for commercial advantage.
The U.S. may be less eager to reach similar agreements with Russia—in part because Russia is less likely to honor them, said Robert Morgus, a policy analyst with the New America think tank’s Cybersecurity Initiative.
The U.S. has been significantly less willing to place restrictions on cyber surveillance, which has caused tensions with some allies.
The perception of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government will also make it more difficult for the administration to reach any agreements that will outlast the Trump administration, Morgus said.
“To say there are zero areas for potential cooperation would be incorrect, but right now, I would say the cons outweigh the benefits,” he said.
This Is Just the Beginning
The Russian interest in restarting high-level cyber discussions is not clear.
Russian officials recently told Jim Lewis, a longtime international cyber fixer with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that they were very interested in restarting those discussions but did not offer a reason, Lewis said.
Lewis, who was rapporteur for three earlier GGE sessions but not the 2017 one, said he supports restarting the dialogue but the U.S. should not expect any easy breakthroughs.
A rapporteur typically acts something like an arbitrator, leading discussions, suggesting compromises and possibly writing drafts of consensus documents.
The U.S. should also be ultra-transparent with cyber allies in Europe, Japan and elsewhere about the course of any cyber negotiations with Russia, Lewis said, so any agreement doesn’t undermine work with those allies on more progressive cyber norms.
“The larger Russian foreign policy goal is to diminish the U.S. and I don’t see them giving up on that,” Lewis said.
And yet, “this is one of the biggest conflicts we have with the Russians, which is why we should be talking with them about it, at least to get them to understand how we’re thinking,” he said. “This is like the dawn of arms control in the '60s. It could take a decade to get to a meaningful agreement.”