Bruce McConnell Talks Cyberwar, Norms with China's Global Times

Media Coverage | March 16, 2018

McConnell shared his insight with the Global Times, based in Beijing.

Global Times (GT): Regarding the internet, cybersecurity has always been important. However, today the challenges of cybersecurity seem to have grown increasingly severe. Why is this?

Bruce McConnell (BM): Across the globe, billions of people rely on the internet for business and daily activities. If the internet is not reliable or not secure, governments, businesses, and even everyday social interactions, would all be disrupted. The internet has become a necessity for modern life. Without cybersecurity there is no national security.

Criminals use the internet to steal money and information from banks, businesses, and individuals. Terrorist organizations use it as a tool to recruit new members, and state actors see the internet as a new kind of battlefield. Threats to the internet will damage the provision of basic services to everyday internet users, which may lead to instability and conflict.

GT: Today, more than 30 countries have cyber teams. As an expert in cybersecurity, how do you see the relative strengths and competitive abilities of the key state actors in cyberspace?

BM: Military and intelligence cyber teams can cause massive disruptions to the internet and the basic services it provides. Banking, finance, power and government services are all threatened by the use of cyber weapons. They are all vulnerable. International peace and security are also threatened by the uncertainties of the origin and intent of such weapons. Cyber weapons run the risk of increasing miscalculations or exacerbating existing tensions in international affairs. Just like with any other weapons, humanity must work together to address the serious threats of cyber weapons.

GT: There have been many contrasting narratives about Russia’s intervention in the U.S. election. Recently, the United States declared that the TV station ‘Russia Today’ would have to register as a ‘foreign agent.’ What are your thoughts on the conflict between the United States and Russia?

BM: Since the internet revolution, the fight for people’s attention online has taken place on a global scale. Governments everywhere are seeking to influence both their own citizens and their enemies; companies use the internet to market products and services to their customers; and terrorist organizations use the internet for malicious propaganda. I believe that this kind of competition for people’s attention is the greatest threat to individuals’ autonomy, democracy, and public life. If the two nations cooperate and lead together, it will influence the entire world.

GT: Between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China, accusations and counter-accusations of hacking have gone on for many years. In light of this history, are you optimistic about the future of international cybersecurity cooperation?

BM: All major countries have experimented with and participated in other countries’ experiments with the use of cyber weapons. In most cases so far, the affects of these activities have been simple and limited. However, the possibility of miscalculation and conflict escalation is very real and must be managed through better cross-border communication.

Some bilateral communications are taking place, such as the U.S.-China Cyber Security Dialogue which began during the Obama administration and continues to this day. However, existing efforts are not enough and more work needs to be done, particularly in facilitating dialogue in the military realm.

GT: From your perspective, what is the special significance of U.S.-China cooperation on cybersecurity? 

BM: Combined, China and the U.S. have the largest population of internet users and the two nations are the world’s greatest technology providers. And the global influence of Chinese internet companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Huawei, and iFlyTek is also rising. In 2016, seven of the world’s top twenty internet companies were Chinese companies. I believe that if China and the U.S. cooperate and play a leading role together in cyberspace, it will influence the entire world. They should start by setting an example and agreeing on restricting the use of cyber weapons, and work together to reduce the current level of cyber stacks by criminals and other malicious actors. As China and the United States become online superpowers, the responsibility for peaceful leadership will continue to increase.

GT: China and the United States have signed a cybersecurity cooperation agreement and have conducted a number of high-level talks. As of this moment, what do you think of the achievements in cyberspace cooperation between the two countries?

BM: The various achievements of the bilateral engagement between China and the United States demonstrate the good intentions of both parties, but the relationship is still in the early stages. In order to achieve meaningful progress, there needs to be more focus on high-level dialogues which allow for engagement between leaders on both sides—including dialogues between members of the U.S. and Chinese militaries.

Multinational companies in both the United States and China will have the opportunity to play a key role in facilitating these dialogues. By sharing information with each other on their observations on and responses to issues in cyber space, they can set a good standard for global cooperation. Businesses’ participation in these exchanges will be a key factor in motivating the engagement of civil and military actors in international discussions on cybersecurity and informatization.

Since President Xi’s successful visit to the United States in 2015, both nations have agreed to a comprehensive package of effective programming and working groups for cooperative Internet governance and cracking down on illegal hacker activity. These actions have played an important role so far and yielded important outcomes. First, organized attacks between the two countries were almost eliminated, and mutual trust was enhanced on the issues of co-governance and illegal hacking. Second, the two countries established a hotline mechanism at the working level. When one side discovers evidence of a cyberattack, it has a direct mechanism for notifying the other side—including the relevant law enforcement agencies—via the hotline. To quantify the achievement: in the past two years, the number of cyber attacks on the United States which are propagated through Chinese servers has been reduced by 80%. Additionally, some third-party countries have also clarified the scope of their attacks against the United States via Chinese servers. Because of the establishment of robust bilateral communication mechanisms, we were better able to identify these proxy attacks at the outset. Thus we can say that high-level dialogues between China and the United States have promoted much-needed paths of communication and idea exchanges, as well as creating effective dispute resolution mechanisms in the cyber realm. These achievements represent positive examples of good Internet governance and demonstrate cooperation between the two nations.

GT: You attended the World Internet Conference in China multiple times in the past few years, and you have a deep personal relationship with China. What do you wish to see in in an ideal relationship between China and the United States?

BM: Today, these two great state powers are facing a new opponent. The challenges of addressing this new opponent will require us to establish a new kind of relationship based on mutual trust and cooperation. The new adversary is not confined to any one nation. It presents itself in the form of climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We must work together to face these adversaries in all directions: South and North, East and West.

The people of China and the United States have a long history of friendship and cooperation. They may have their differences here and there, but in the end, we all live together on a very small planet. These two great powers are morally responsible for establishing a new cooperative relationship to address the many problems facing humanity today. This is a very urgent matter.

Read the interview in Chinese.


Photo: "Cyber attacks" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Christiaan Colen