What’s the Russian word for “chutzpah”?
The Russian plan was opposed — feebly, it must be said — by the United States and some European countries. A State Department official warned reporters on Dec. 19, eight days before the measure passed, that the United States had “very serious concerns” about such a treaty that would “stand against fundamental American freedoms.”
A similar caution came from a coalition that included the European Union and some prominent nongovernmental organizations. “The approach taken . . . is fundamentally flawed and would restrict the use of the internet for human rights, and social and economic development,” an open letter signed by NGOs said. But the measure, backed by China, passed 79 to 60, with 33 abstentions.
“I think this is a pretty big deal, especially in how we control the Internet and who gets to govern it,” says Michael Chertoff, a former secretary of homeland security who now runs a large cyber-consulting group.
Chertoff notes that although officials from both the State and Justice departments have tried to counter Russian efforts, there has been little top-level focus from the Trump White House. “I don’t think cybersecurity has been elevated to a priority in the way that tariffs have been, even though it’s more important to the global economy in the 21st century.
“The Russians see information security as security against information they don’t like,” Chertoff explains. Russia tries to block reporting that challenges its government narratives, just as China uses its so-called Great Firewall to restrict the flow of negative information inside its borders. Both countries are exporting these censoring technologies to other nations that want to suppress dissent.
“People should pay attention,” agrees Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration’s top cyber diplomat. He notes that the Russians have been trying for two decades to shape global Internet rules that match their interests. But with the cybercrime treaty, “they’ve taken it to the next level.”
The Russians never joined the U.S.-led 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, signed by 67 nations, viewing it as too intrusive. They took part in a U.N. Group of Governmental Experts on the Internet and embraced its consensus norms in 2013 and 2015, but they balked in 2017 and formed a rival U.N. oversight organization called the Open-Ended Working Group in 2018.
The working group has received submissions from nations that suppress Internet freedom. China inevitably called for “win-win cooperation” but insisted that “the principle of sovereignty applies in cyberspace.” Iran, which closed off the Internet in November to try to suppress domestic protests, argued that it has been “a victim of cyber weapon[s],” presumably a reference to an alleged Stuxnet attack by the United States and Israel.
A leading architect of Russia’s Internet strategy has been Andrey Krutskikh, a special representative of President Vladimir Putin for information security. Sources described a comment he made to a Moscow audience in February 2016, as the Russians were about to launch their hacking assault on the U.S. presidential election: “I’m warning you: We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.”
Krutskikh and his Russian colleagues have been wooing foreigners toward what he described last March as “depoliticized expert dialogue” about cybersecurity. One example was his meeting in Moscow in November with Henri Verdier, France’s ambassador for digital affairs. The two agreed on “the need to develop international cooperation” in cyberspace, within a U.N. framework, according to a Russian news release after the meeting.
How’s that again? Isn’t France one of the United States’ digital allies, and wasn’t President Emmanuel Macron a victim of Russian hacking during his 2017 presidential campaign? It’s complicated, apparently. Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, quoted Verdier saying after the meeting: “France has not officially attributed cyberattacks to anyone.”
As I said, you have to hand it to the Russians when it comes to information wars. They are masters of the arts of deception and denial, never more effectively than in the Internet age. They pick your pockets, and then they offer to help you call the police.