Reflections on Second Substantive Session of UN OEWG on ICT Security (Part 2): Threats, Cyber Norms and International Law

Ananya Moncourt & Sidharth Deb

“Aspects of Cyber Conflict (pt. 3)” by Linda Graf is licensed under CC BY 4.0


Part 1 of this three part series on the second substantive session of the United Nations’ (UN) Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on ICT security (2021-25) analysed key organisational developments regarding multistakeholder participation. The post contextualised the OEWG’s institutional mandate, analysed the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on discussions, traced differing State positions, and critiqued the overall inclusiveness of final modalities on stakeholder participation at the OEWG.

This post (and subsequently Part 3) analyses substantial discussions at the session held between March 28 and April 01, 2022. These discussions were organised according to the OEWG’s mandate outlined in UN General Assembly (GA) Resolution 75/240. Accordingly, Part 2’s analysis covers:

  • existing and potential threats to “information security”.
  • rules, norms and principles of responsible State behaviour i.e. cyber norms.
  • international law’s applicability to States’ use of ICTs.

Both posts examine differing State interventions, and India’s interventions under each theme. The combined analysis of Parts 2 and 3 provides evidence that UN cybersecurity processes struggle with an inherent tension. This relates to the dichotomy between the OEWG’s mandate, which is based on confidence building, cooperation, collective resilience, common understanding and mutual accountability; as against the geopolitical rivalries which shape multilateralism. Specifically, it demonstrates the role of lawfare within these processes.

Existing and Potential Threats

Discussions reflected the wide heterogeneities of States’ perceptions of threats in cyberspace. The US, UK, EU, Estonia, France, Germany, Canada, Singapore, Netherlands and Japan prioritise securing critical infrastructure and ICT supply chains. Submarine cables, communication networks, rail systems, the public core of the internet, healthcare infrastructure and information assets, humanitarian databases, and oil and gas pipelines were cited as contemporary targets. Ransomware and social engineering were highlighted as prominent malicious cyber techniques.

In contrast, Russia, China and allies like Syria, Cuba and Iran urged the OEWG to address threats which conform to their understanding of “information security”. Premised on information sovereignty and domestic regime stability, prior proposals like the International Code of Conduct for Information Security offers a template in understanding their objectives. These States advocate regulating large-scale disinformation, terrorism, recruitment, hate speech and propaganda occurring over private digital platforms like social media. Cuba described such ICTs as tools for interventionism and destabilisation which interfere in States’ internal affairs. Iran and Venezuela cautioned States against using globally integral ICT systems as conduits for illegitimate geopolitical goals, which compromise other States’ cyber sovereignty—a recurring theme of these States’ engagement at the session.

Netherlands and Germany described threats against democratic and/or electoral processes as threats to critical infrastructure. Similarly, France described disinformation as a risk to security and stability in cyberspace. This is important to track since partial intersections with the Sino-Russian understanding of information security could increase future prospects of information flows regulation at the OEWG.

Developing States like Brazil, Venezuela and Pakistan characterised the digital/ICT divide between States as a major threat to cyberspace stability. Thus, capacity building, multistakeholder involvement and international cooperation — at CERT, policymaking and law enforcement levels — were introduced early as key elements of international cybersecurity. UK and Russia supported this agenda. France, China and Ecuador identified the development of cyber offensive capabilities as an international threat since they legitimise cyberspace as a theatre of military operations.

India’s participation in this area treads a middle ground. ICT supply chain security across infrastructure, products and services; and the protection of “critical information infrastructures” (CIIs) integral to economies and “social harmony” were stated priorities. Notably, the definition of CIIs under the Information Technology Act does not cite social harmony. India cited ransomware, misinformation, data security breaches and “… mismatches in cyber capabilities between Member States” as contemporary threats. To mitigate these threats, India advocated for improved information sharing and cooperation at technical, policy and government levels across Member States.

Cyber Norms

States disagreed on whether prior GGE and OEWG consensus reports serve as a minimum baseline for future cyber norms discussions. The Sino-Russian camp which includes Iraq, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Belarus, Cuba and others argued that cyber norms are an insufficient fix, and instead proposed a new legally binding instrument on international cybersecurity. China proposed a Global Initiative on Data Security as a blueprint for such a framework. Calls for treaties/conventions could trigger reintroduction of prior proposals on information security by these States.

The US, UK, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Netherlands and allied States, and developing countries like Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, South Africa and Kenya argued that, instead of revisiting first principles, the current OEWG’s focus should be the implementation of earlier agreed cyber norms. Self-assessment of States’ implementation of the cyber norms framework was considered an international first step. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in partnership with Australia, Canada, Mexico and others, launched a new national survey tool to gauge countries’ trajectories in implementation. Since cyber norms are voluntary, the survey serves as a soft mechanism of accountability, a platform which democratises best practices, and a directory of national points-of-contact (PoCs) wherein States can connect and collaborate.

States also raised substantive areas for discussions on new norms or clarifications on existing ones. Netherlands, US, UK and Estonia called for protections safeguarding the public core of the internet, since it comprises the technical backbone infrastructure in cyberspace which facilitates freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and access to online information. “Due diligence”— which requires States to not allow their territory to be used for internationally wrongful acts—was another substantive area of interest.

ICT supply chain integrity and attribution generated substantial interest. Given the close scrutiny on domestic companies, under this theme China recommended new rules and standards on international supply chain security. If analysed through lawfare this proposal perhaps aims to minimise targeted State measures against Chinese ICT suppliers in both telecom and digital markets.

The US pressed for deliberations on “attribution” and specifically public attribution of State-sponsored malicious cyber activities. China cautioned against hasty public attributions since it may cause escalation and inter-State confrontation. China argued that attributions on cyber incidents require complete and sufficient technical evidence. The sole emphasis on technical evidence (which ignores surrounding evidence and factors) could be strategic since it creates a challenging threshold for attribution. As a result it could counter-intuitively end up obfuscating the source of malicious activities in cyberspace.

Discussions on “critical infrastructure” protection also raised important interventions. Singapore stated that critical infrastructure security should protect electoral and democratic integrity. China argued for an international definition of “critical infrastructure” consistent with sovereignty. Over time such representations could further legitimise greater information controls and embed the Sino-Russian conception of information security within global processes.

India focused on supply chain integrity, critical infrastructure protection and greater institutional and policy cooperation. They advocated close cooperation in matters involving criminal and terrorist use of ICTs. There were also brief references to democratisation of cyber capabilities across Member States and the role of cloud computing infrastructure in future inter-State conflicts. This served as a prelude to India’s interventions under international law.

International Law

Familiar geopolitical fragmentations shaped discussions. Russia, China, Cuba, Belarus, Iran, and Syria called for a binding international instrument which regulates State behaviour in cyberspace. Belarus argued that extant international legal norms and the UN Charter lack meaningful applicability to modern cyber threat landscapes. Russia and Syria called for clarity on what areas and issues fall within the sphere of international cybersecurity. Viewed through the lens of lawfare, it appears that such proposals aim to integrate their conceptions of information security within OEWG discussions.

EU, Estonia, Australia and France argued this would undermine prior international processes and the cyber norms framework. The US, UK, Australia, Canada, Brazil, France, Japan, Germany and Korea instead focused on developing a common understanding on international law’s applicability to cyberspace, including the UN Charter. They pushed for dialogue on international humanitarian law, international human rights law, prohibition on the use of force, and the right to self-defence against armed attacks. Similar to previous failed negotiations at the 5th GGE, these issues continue to remain contentious areas. For instance, Cuba argued against the applicability of the right to self-defence since no cybersecurity incident can qualify as an “armed attack”.

Sovereignty, sovereign equality and non-interference in States’ internal affairs were prominent issues. Other substantive areas included attribution (technical, legal and political), critical infrastructure protection and the peaceful settlement of disputes. To enable common understanding and potential consensus on international law, the US, Singapore and Switzerland advocated the OEWG follow a similar approach to the 6th UN GGE. Specifically, they suggested developing a voluntary compendium of national positions on the applicability of international law in cyberspace.

India addressed issues relating to sovereignty, non-intervention in internal affairs, prohibition of the use of force, attribution, and dispute settlement. It discussed the need to assign international responsibility on States for cyber operations emerging from one State and which have extra-territorial effects. They argued for States enjoying the sovereignty to pass domestic laws/policies towards securing their ICT environments. India advocated imposing upon States an obligation to take reasonable steps to stop ICT-based internationally wrongful acts domestically. Finally, it highlighted that international law must adapt to the role of cloud computing hosting data/malicious activities in cross-border settings.

Conclusion | Previewing Part 3

In Part 2 of this series on the second substantive session of the OEWG on ICT Security (2021-25) we have analysed States’ interventions on matters relating to existing and potential threats to information security; the future role of cyber norms for responsible State behaviour in cyberspace; and the applicability of international law within cyberspace. In Part 3 we assess discussions relating to confidence building measures, capacity building and regular institutional dialogue. While this post reveals the geopolitical tensions which influence international cybersecurity discussions, the next post focuses extensively on the international cooperation, trust building, technical and institutional collaboration, and developmental aspects of these processes.

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