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Opinion

Opinion: Arms control is needed in cyberspace

After spending the past week at cyber conferences, DW's Marcel Fürstenau is unsure what to do about virtual dangers - but says confidence-building measures are crucial.

More prosperity, more democracy, and more peace - the promises of the internet were too good to be true. Although the worldwide web does make everyday life easier in every corner of this earth, it is only one, beautiful side of the coin. When you flip the coin, you see many ugly facets: fraudsters, liars and warriors. They clear out online bank accounts, spread fake news and paralyze power plants. Cybercrime is booming. The same holds true for events where businesses, politicians and scientists discuss counterstrategies.

Two high-level conferences were recently held in Berlin and the neighboring city of Potsdam. There, IT specialists, managers, presidents of German security agencies and military officials took part in discussions. What they reported with certainty was worrisome: Cybercrime, a booming sector, is difficult to control. The rise of nefarious internet deeds can be attributed to private, but also state offenders. Perpetrators are rarely investigated or charged.

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Cyber warfare is on the rise

Read more: North Korea's murky links to international cybercrime

Sometimes reminiscent of the Cold War

Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, openly admits that he does not know the full extent of cyberattacks. Nobody knows what data may have fallen into the wrong hands after the cyberattack on the German Bundestag in 2015. It is completely uncertain what may still be done with the data, for example in the upcoming federal election campaign. Maaßen is convinced that the attackers were from Russia. One can always depend on former secret service man Vladimir Putin to influence German politics by initiating virtual conflicts.

Deutsche Welle Marcel Fürstenau Kommentarbild ohne Mikrofon (DW )

DW's Marcel Fürstenau

Read more: How could Russia influence the 2017 German national elections?

Nevertheless, it is risky to more or less openly pillory him. The scenario is reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the East and West goaded each other into rhetorical and military escalations. The ice began to thaw, albeit slowly, at the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the 1970s. Although the military buildup continued for a while, there was at least a reliable dialogue forum with binding rules. Something comparable is necessary on a global scale in order to better manage the dangers in cyberspace today.

A security problem: too few IT specialists

There have already been some heartening approaches on a national level in Germany. The annual Potsdam Conference for National Cyber Security, which has just come to a close, took place for the fifth time. Hosted by the Hasso Plattner Institute from the University of Potsdam, it brought together experts from IT companies, politicians, researchers and heads of security authorities. However, many of these groups are quite hesitant about interacting because of underlying different interests. Businesses want to offer their customers secure products, for example, software for the encryption of electronic communication. Intelligence agencies, on the other hand, are working on virtual monitoring programs to put a stop to terrorism and other crimes. Highly qualified IT specialists are needed for this and there are very few of them. Businesses and governments are thus competing for the same bright minds.

Read more: How Germany's foreign intelligence agency recruits young hackers

Traditional international laws do not help

Deutschland Bundeswehr Cyberabwehr Plakat

The German army's recruitment poster for its new cyber defense unit

The German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, who have also joined the competition, began building cyber troops (CIR) in April. In military logic, building an army to ward off virtual attacks is mandatory. However, it is only moving on a potential battlefield with invisible opponents, as cyberwar works the same as cybercrime does: anonymously. This crucial difference to the real world raises serious legal and ethical questions. Who do I fight against, and with what means, if I do not know my enemy? One cannot answer such questions using traditional international law. Only diplomats can find answers to this virtual arms race - on the highest level, at the UN. It may sound like an illusion, but the world does need arms control in cyberspace. In critical cases it may even need something like the Geneva Convention. But rules like this were developed for real, face to face battles, and not ones that are fought anonymously with the click of a mouse.

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