White House officials report that senior members of the Obama administration, including diplomats and security experts, met with Russian officials this week in Geneva to discuss the importance of cybersecurity and enact measures that aim to prevent a cyber war between the two superpowers.
In January 2016, coordinator of cyber issues with the State Department, Chris Painter announced that the United States has been working with other countries to encourage a global norm for cyber standards. Current and former U.S. officials have noted that certain states, including China and Russia pose threats to U.S. cybersecurity. Hackers from these countries have been known to scour the U.S. power grid searching for vulnerabilities. If any of these nations were to exploit these vulnerabilities and penetrate America’s grid, they could significantly damage portions of U.S. infrastructure.
The meetings were held months after a cyber attack against the Ukrainian power grid led to power outages. While the United States has not publicly labeled Russia as the perpetrator, senior U.S. security officials and the Ukrainian government do believe that Russia was behind the attacks. The situation in Ukraine is not the first time that Russia has been accused of mounting a cyber war. In 2007, Russia was also accused of launching a three week wave of cyber attacks on neighboring state, Estonia. The Kremlin denied involvement in the attacks that disabled the websites of government ministries, banks, and offices. The ability of hackers to mask their identities and locations makes attributing cyber attacks to the actual perpetrators an arduous task.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and and Russia have been strained since 2014 due to the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian support for Ukrainian separatist movements. Although this meeting is just as highly important and significant, it is not a regrouping of the 2013 Bilateral Presidential Commission working group. According to a senior U.S. official “it is in our interest to discuss cybersecurity issues with Russia, including to review the 2013 Bilateral U.S.-Russia Cyber [confidence-building measures].” The goal for the 2013 Bilateral U.S.-Russia Cybersecurity working group was to focus on the threat that cyber attacks could pose on international security and formulate methods to coordinate a unified response.
The meetings involved reviewing previously signed cybersecurity agreements and attempted to enact confidence building measures. These ‘confidence building measures’ are meant to increase transparency and repair relations between the two countries. One such measure that has been established is the creation of a “hotline.” The hotline allows Russian and U.S. officials to communicate directly during a cyber crisis.
Just last month, Russian Foreign Minister, Segrei Lavrov, while discussing the extradition of cyber criminals, declared that “Russia would be the last country to cooperate in stopping the cyber-crime.” Lavrov hopes that with this week’s meetings, the United States and Russia will come to an understanding on working cooperatively.