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Cyber attacks

Interview: Michael Knigge /sst
February 8, 2015

It's not just cyber threats from terrorists we should be worried about, says US cyber coordinator Christopher Painter. Germany and the US also have to cooperate on protecting a global, open Internet.

A screen showing binary code and the word password (photo: Oliver Berg/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Oliver Berg

DW: From your experience, do you think cyber security issues and cyber attacks play a role in the ongoing Ukraine crisis?

Christopher Painter: I think they increasingly play a role in any conflict. We saw this certainly back a long time ago in Georgia. But there's always going to be a component now in any conflict that's going to be cyber, just like it would be as you get new capabilities in any other field.

But that also heightens the need to have good security in place for countries to make sure that they have all the ability to protect their systems, but also resiliency if there is a problem with these systems so that they can still operate.

We haven't seen a debilitating cyber attack - the closest thing would probably be Estonia back in 2007 - but even that I think they were able to bounce back pretty quickly, but we have to have these capabilities in place.

There is also a cyber aspect in the fight against the 'Islamic State' in the Middle East. Can you give a sense how that is playing out from your experience?

There is the kind of cyber security that I focus on and my group focuses on which is the worry about cyber attacks against businesses, infrastructure - whether they be intrusions that take intellectual property and trade secrets or the kind of destructive attacks we saw in Sony.

But we are also seeing - and we've been seeing this for some time - terrorist groups using the Internet to recruit, to plan, to proselytize. What we see with the 'Islamic State' - and this is not really surprising - is these terrorist groups use the Internet more, and more effectively, to spread their message. One of the things that not just the US, but the US, Germany and other countries have done is working on challenging the terrorists' message online. Making sure that we get the other messages out. In the United States, we have a very expansive view of free speech, but even there, if a terrorist group is using the Internet to try for material support, that's a crime, so we can go after that.

You mentioned German-US cooperation. How is that relationship changing since the NSA fallout?

I think it's strong. There is a legitimate conversation about intelligence gathering issues. There has been a conversation in the United States for over a year now - a very robust one. This is something we talk to our German colleagues about.

Christopher Painter (photo: picture alliance/Kyodo)
Christopher Painter is the coordinator for cyber issues at the US State DepartmentImage: picture alliance/Kyodo

But we can't lose sight of the larger issues. We can't lose sight of the need for Germany and the US to cooperate on cyber security issues, on how we realize the vision we both share: an Internet that is free and open but secure at the same time. We are not trading off one against the other.

Germany and the US share core values and there are some things we are trying to advance in this area in terms of having a more stable cyberspace and building better confidence and transparency.

I also think that when we see incidents like the Sony incident, it brings home to all of us that this is not just a technical issue. This is very much an issue that involves national security, economic security, human rights. It is something that is and will become even more a priority issue for our countries, so it's incumbent on us to work together.

You wouldn't say then that cooperation between Germany and the US has suffered in practice on the ground after this whole fallout?

What I say is we can't let it suffer. It is so important that we continue to talk and continue to move together - not just Germany and the US, but also Europe and Japan, other like-minded countries.

The challenges we see, not just the technical challenges, but the policy challenges that we face from countries that have a far different view of the future of the Internet - who really view the Internet in some ways as a threat, who want to impose controls over people expressing themselves and want to suppress criticism of their governments and were trying to draw a boundary around cyber space. That poses a real challenge to this whole system that's been so incredible in terms of a social and economic engine. It's really important for Germany and the US to work together and I think we both see that.

Christopher Painter is the US State Department's coordinator for cyber issues.

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