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President Obama urges focus on non-state actors, not cyber arms race

President Obama said he wants to avoid a cyber-Cold War and urged nations to focus more on the dangers of non-state actors and less on a potential cyber arms race.

At the international G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, President Obama spoke to other heads of state about forming pacts to avoid of the dangers of a cyber arms race.

In comments that lasted less than two minutes and thirty seconds, President Obama noted the history of Russian cyberattacks on the U.S., asserted American supremacy in cyberwar capabilities and suggested that the world would benefit from avoiding a potential cyber arms race and cyber-Cold War.

Obama said he had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin about cybersecurity and noted the U.S. has "had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other countries in the past," but tried to leave those issues behind.

"We are moving into a new area where a number of countries have significant capacities. And frankly we've got more capacity than any other country, both offensively and defensively," Obama said. "But our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody is acting responsibly."

Jim Reavis, CEO at the Cloud Security Alliance and president at Reavis Consulting Group, didn't quite agree with the president's assessment of U.S. cyber capabilities and suggested potential troubles in implementing the cyberwar norms suggested.

"There is no doubt that the USA has very strong offensive cyber capabilities. Defense is harder to do, which is why I believe offensive cyber capabilities provide a necessary deterrent," Reavis said. "Everyone will agree to norms in concept, but no one will easily agree to be put in a competitive disadvantage or lose a competitive advantage by complying to those norms."

President Obama also said there are other cyberthreats that deserve attention rather than a cyber arms race.

"We are going to have enough problems in cyberspace with non-state actors who are engaging in theft and using the internet for all sorts of illicit practices and protecting our critical infrastructure and making sure that our financial systems are sound," Obama said. "What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the wild, Wild West where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition, unhealthy competition or conflict, through these means, when I think, wisely, we put in place some norms when it comes to using other weapons."

President Obama also said the discussions with Russia and other countries like China have already seen movement.

"We have started to get some willingness with a lot of countries around the world to adopt these norms but we have got to make sure we are observing them," President Obama said.

But Reavis said it may be difficult to separate state and non-state threat actors.

"We should focus on criminals, but to not do so in exclusion of nation-state cyber weapon activity would be a mistake, in light of the close cooperation state and non-state actors have," Reavis said. "A cyber arms race is well underway, it doesn't require the same type of investment that characterized the Cold War military industrial complex which increases the difficulty in identifying the players. Reining in a cyber arms race will take a long time. We can only hope that governments will be rational and understand that they have more to gain economically in the long run by cooperating on positive cybersecurity practices, policies and treaties."

Reavis added that the first step in any process of creating norms has to start with acknowledging the threat of a cyber arms race.

"We must acknowledge offensive cyberweapons. Governments around the world are compiling their own stockpiles of hacking tools," Reavis said. "Recognizing the existence of these cyberweapons, and categorizing them will allow us to develop more mature, realistic policies and rules of engagement. We know that governments will spy on each other using hacking tools. However, using these tools to cripple a power grid and shut down hospitals would be a most egregious use of technology. Having treaties agreeing not to use cyber weapons in a destructive manner during peacetime is a positive, and knowing that opposing countries have these weapons will provide the necessary deterrent to provide heft to these treaties."

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