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The danger of cybersecurity 'ghettos'

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 4, 2013
Expert warns that without 'harmonisation' of security standards among rich and poor nations, the global economy will decline and cyber risks will increase

It could be politically tricky for the international community to help poorer countries improve their cybersecurity capacity, for a number of reasons. One potential problem could be that developing countries, some of which are hostile to the West in general and to the U.S. in particular, might simply use that improved expertise to attack their more developed neighbors.

Healey doesn't see that as a major risk. "I'm sure we'd not aid some of the nations we least trust," he said, but added that, "many of the technologies are truly defensive, or the economic gains of development far outweigh any potential national security risk."

It could be even trickier politically, however, to "harmonize" security standards around the world, especially given the recent revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, about the agency spying on other countries and its own citizens.

Jacob Olcott, principal at Good Harbor Consulting and a former cyber policy adviser to the U.S. Congress, said he believes those revelations, "will have a real, damaging economic impact to the U.S. IT industry, and to U.S. diplomatic efforts in cybersecurity.

"In recent years, the U.S. government and the U.S. IT industry have fought hard against country-specific security standards, arguing instead for the adoption of U.S.-led international standards. The Snowden leaks seriously undermine this argument because it creates distrust in the international standard," he said.

"International governments that believe there is a special relationship between the NSA and the U.S. IT industry will be more likely to adopt their own restrictive standards."

Healey agreed. "Cooperation is built on trust, so any progress will be much harder now," he said. "If the US is seen as circumventing security, with things like Flame or encryption, then there may be suspicion of U.S.-backed standards. Of course, they don't have to be tied together, but any countries or companies that wanted reasons not to cooperate now have more than enough reason."

And Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said he is, "deeply skeptical that non-Western nations will agree to harmonization."

He added, "I suspect in the end that the network will fractionate somewhat into two networks -- a 'Free West' one and an 'Unfreeze Everywhere Else' one -- and that is not a good thing."

So far, however, even though the Internet has been a commercial fact of life for more than 25 years, this kind of dystopian fragmentation is apparently not established. John Miller, senior counsel and policy strategist on global public policy for Intel Corp., said at the recent Brookings forum that the current global digital economy has been "a successful model."


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