The United States and Russia have signed a landmark agreement to reduce the risk of conflict in cyberspace through real-time communications about incidents of national security concern.

The pact, the first of its kind, was announced in a statement issued by both countries Monday at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland. The agreement was cast as part of a broader bilateral effort to improve cooperation, including on counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

The accord is a rare positive development in an area of national security otherwise dominated by gloomy assessments of increased threats and capabilities among other nations and terrorists.

The pact’s components build on the U.S.-Soviet experience in avoiding a nuclear war. A key element involves the U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, a round-the-clock center built in 1987 so that Moscow and Washington could alert each other to missile tests that could be mistaken as acts of aggression.

Cooperation essential

Under the new pact, the countries will use the center to warn each other of cyber-exercises that might be misperceived as attacks and as a channel to ask about cyber incidents that raise national security concerns and appear to be emanating from the other’s territory.

“We recognize that threats to or in the use of [computer technologies] include political-
military and criminal threats, as well as threats of a terrorist nature, and are some of the most serious national and international security challenges we face in the 21st century,” President Obama and President Vladimir Putin said in the joint statement, issued by the White House.

“We affirm the importance of cooperation between the United States of America and the Russian Federation for the purpose of enhancing bilateral understanding in this area. We view this cooperation as essential to safeguarding the security of our countries.”

The agreement, two years in the making, also calls for a “hotline,” or secure phone link, so that the U.S. cybersecurity coordinator and his or her Russian counterpart can speak directly in the event of a crisis.

Formal channel

The pact also establishes a formal channel through which the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, run by the Department of Homeland Security, can exchange technical information with its Russian counterpart. Any shared data would be stripped of personal identifying information. The data covered would include Internet protocol addresses pointing to computer networks that have been determined to host malicious activity.

Finally, the two countries will set up a cyber working group “within the next month” to provide a forum to discuss emerging threats and propose concrete measures for addressing them and furthering cybersecurity cooperation.

The pact is part of a broader effort by the United States to develop global norms of good behavior in cyberspace based on international law. Russia and the United States have already agreed that the law of armed conflict applies in cyberspace, and earlier this month at the United Nations, China affirmed that principle. Now that Russia and the United States have forged this new agreement, officials privately say they hope that it can pave the way for similar pacts with other potential cyber-foes such as China.

‘Useful step’

Analysts said that the pact is a positive development but that much remains to be done. “This is a useful step in the right direction,” said Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard University professor and a former senior official at the Pentagon and at the State Department. “Obviously no single step is going to be a solution to the whole problem . . . but at least it gets countries going on the process of communicating with each other.”