Thu, Jan 10, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Cyberwar is quietly being managed in ‘meetings with vodka’

By Eli Lake  /  Bloomberg Opinion

The Chinese delegation included Chen Zhimin (陳智敏), a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party and a former top official in his country’s cyberspace agency.

One exercise at the meetings was a simulated response to a hypothetical cyberattack.

Kanuck said that he does not read his counterparts the riot act; he knows his interlocutors have intimate knowledge of their own country’s cyberoperations against the West.

Rather, Kanuck said that he wants to learn how China and Russia understand cyberconflict in general.

Nigel Inkster, who worked for British intelligence for more than 30 years and has participated in the conferences, said that the meetings are also useful for more specific knowledge.

“We see how people react to certain things, certain proposals,” he said. “Later at night, after a few drinks and a good dinner, people might be more forthcoming.”

One insight Western participants have gleaned is the different emphases of the US and its rivals.

The US focuses on “protecting the pipes so the Internet remains functional,” Kanuck said.

Meanwhile, Russia and China “are extremely focused on the content that transits those pipes,” he said, adding that they tend to focus on the ability of foreign actors to use the Internet to influence public opinion.

Rafal Rohozinksi, a senior fellow at the IISS, put it like this: “We complain: ‘Why can’t you give us access to or arrest an individual who operates a command-and-control server in Saint Petersburg?’ Russians will say: ‘Why won’t you take down this Chechen-operated Web site that sends information into Russia contrary to our laws?’”

It is a valuable perspective for Americans to know. While analysts in Washington have focused on Russian disinformation and its efforts to influence US politics, their counterparts in Russia believe the West has been doing the same thing to Russia for years.

At the same time, this perspective also reveals the limits to these “meetings with vodka”: They can increase understanding, thereby making conflict more predictable, but this kind of diplomacy cannot end cyberwar.

When or if US officials have a chance to take these talks to the next stage — including vodka, but also people with the authority to change policy — they should be careful not to validate or enable Russian and Chinese censorship.

Everyone wants want cyberpeace in our time, but not at the price of helping authoritarians silence digital dissent.

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