Obama aims to avoid a ‘cycle of escalation’ in cyberattacks by countries

The US is working towards norms of behavior for countries in cyberspace

U.S. President Barack Obama said his country has had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia and other countries in the past, but aims to establish some norms of behavior rather than let the issue escalate as happened in arms races in the past.

Obama’s statement on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China, after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not refer specifically to a recent hack of the Democratic National Committee of the Democratic Party that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing.

Politically embarrassing emails from the breach were leaked ahead of the convention of the party, with many security experts holding that the hack had the backing of Russian intelligence services. Whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released the emails but did not disclose their source. The U.S. government hasn’t blamed Russia for the incident.

U.S. authorities are also said to be investigating the hack of another Democratic Party organization, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The FBI has also reportedly warned election officials across the country to take measures to secure their computer systems, after foreign attackers were found to have hacked two state election databases in Illinois and Arizona.

“I am not going to comment on specific investigations that are still live and active, but I'll tell you that we had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other countries in the past," Obama told reporters, according to news outlets. 

The president described moving into a new era where a number of countries have significant cyber capacities, and “frankly we have got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively,” he said in an apparent warning to the Russians. 

He said the goal of the U.S. was not to duplicate in cyberspace a “cycle of escalation” akin to other arms races in the past, but to start “instituting some norms" so that everybody is acting responsibly.

Obama said there are going to be enough problems in cyberspace with "non-state actors" using the Internet for theft and other illegal purposes, which creates the need for protecting critical infrastructure and securing financial systems.

"What we cannot do is have a situation in which, certainly, this becomes the wild, wild West, where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in unhealthy competition or conflict through these means," Obama said. He said he had discussed the topic of cybersecurity norms with Putin and earlier with some other countries, and is already seeing some willingness from a lot of countries to adopt the rules, though it will have to be seen whether they are following them.

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John Ribeiro

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