With growing threats not only in the physical world but also in today’s nebular cyber world, Christopher Painter ’80 argued that “cyber is the new black,” meaning that “everyone cares about cyber” now.
Painter, who has been at the forefront of cyber issues for the last 25 years, addressed growing security concerns and the role of modern cyber-diplomacy at the 2017 Bartels World Affairs Fellowship Lecture this Wednesday.
Painter, the “weary warrior” of cyber warfare for his entire career, started his career as a prosecutor dealing with cyber cases and served as the U.S. State Department’s first coordinator for cyber issues from 2011 until July this year.
While studying at Cornell in 1979, Painter used punched cards for computer programming and played hundreds of sessions of BakéGyamon, an anime computer game, for his work study. Back then, Painter reflected, “the internet … existed in very basic form. The world wide web certainly didn’t exist.”
But technology has come far since; today, “we are all dependant [on the internet] for financial transactions, social transactions and to communicate really for everything,” Painter said.
However, though this rapid technological innovation has largely “been a tremendous force for good,” it does not come without its dangers.
“[The internet] has been the target of criminals, malicious state actors, terrorists and others,” Painter said.
Therefore, it is essential to find the balance, so that we are “not trading security for openness … but having all these things together,” Painter said.
“Back then, people looked at computer hackers as Robin Hood’s,” Painter said, because the common citizen’s information was not stolen, nor were they personally threatened.
This is no longer the case for the common citizen today.
In 2000, Painter was involved in a case that seemed to be a sophisticated, dangerous attack because it was on a global scale, but in reality, it was a fourteen-year-old Canadian boy, called the “MafiaBoy,” hacking computers.
His acts, Painter said, “had really a disproportionate effect and demonstrates the asymmetric nature of the technical threat.”
On a more serious note, Painter discussed the time North Korea hacked into Sony to pull back the distribution of an image, in which the country was “not only hacking into a system but was meant to curtail freedom of expression rights,” he said.
Taking this a step further, Painter highlighted a major concern regarding cybersecurity: “the fear of a debilitating attack against our infrastructure,” he said, pointing to possible examples of taking down the water system and the power system.
Painter said plainly, “It would have long-term, terrible consequences” as “not just a cyber but as a physical event.”
Therefore, “we have to be cognisant of these threats going forward,” he said.
These threats transcend individual hackers to entire nations, with different states having different visions for the future of technology.
Whereas much of the Western world is open about sharing information, Russia and China are among the countries that “want absolute sovereignty in cyberspace,” Painter said.
“The internet is not run by states — not run by government,” Painter said.
Although governments have influence over the internet to some extent, the private sector is involved, too, as Painter explained, so it is an international issue that different groups of people have to confront together.
Painter believes international law should apply to cyberspace as it does to the physical world. There are a set of norms many countries agree to, such as the idea that a nation should not attack infrastructures meant for the public good.
“You have to get countries around the world to embrace this to really make these norms stick,” he said.
So, how do we deal with the issue of cybersecurity?
Painter said, “It all comes down to the role of diplomacy — in all of this, the role of building alliances and shaping the environment and showing international cooperation is really paramount.”