Foreign Policy in the Age of Cybersecurity Threats

March 23, 2015
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3 min read

The Obama administration has been the first to face the foreign policy and national security challenges of what may be called the modern age of cyberthreats and cybersecurity.

To put the pace of developments in context, the first revelation of the Stuxnet cyberweapon, believed to have crippled thousands of Iranian nuclear centrifuges, came in the summer of 2010, a year and a half after President Barack Obama took office. From a different perspective, the first iPad was released that same spring, helping to launch the modern era of mobile devices.

This is not to say that earlier developments in cybersecurity and foreign policy do not have a continuing impact. For example, as noted by Rob Price at Business Insider, the recently discovered FREAK encryption vulnerability has its roots in restrictions on exports of encryption technology that date back to the 1990s. Likewise, foreign policy decisions being made today may have an effect decades down the road, which provides all the more reason to give these policies the closest attention.

Foreign Policy in a World Without Borders

In response to emerging threats and challenges, the Obama administration has launched a wide-ranging response designed to enhance America’s cybersecurity. The foreign policy section of the White House website lists the following top five administration priorities:

  1. Protect critical infrastructure.
  2. Improve cyber incident reporting.
  3. Engage with international partners to protect the Internet.
  4. Secure federal networks.
  5. Build a security-savvy workforce by working with the private sector.

It has often been said that the Internet has no borders, and the administration’s priorities are a vivid demonstration of this fact. Of the five priorities listed, only the third is specific to the traditional role of the State Department and its diplomatic corps. As the fifth priority implies, even the lines between the government and private sector are blurred in this cyber age.

The White House also lists the following five principles that guide its cybersecurity initiatives:

  1. Whole-of-government approach;
  2. Network defense first;
  3. Protection of privacy and civil liberties;
  4. Public-private collaboration;
  5. International cooperation and engagement.

Again, only one of the five points specifically addresses the State Department, underlining the scope of cybersecurity and its independence from traditional borders. However, diplomats will still have their work cut out for them as they deal with different laws related to cybersecurity in other countries.

The principles also reiterate the crucial importance of protecting the nation’s vital infrastructure, the first in the list of priorities. As the Internet of Things emerges, this challenge will only grow — and rapidly.

For Businesses, a Call to Move Beyond Passwords

Meanwhile, for business leaders, the White House’s perspective on cybersecurity and foreign policy has specific implications that go well beyond a general call for partnership and collaboration.

The fifth priority — building a cyber-savvy workforce — also makes a particular reference to moving beyond passwords. This is a highly specific call to action that anyone involved in business cybersecurity can eagerly endorse. Passwords have emerged as perhaps the single greatest Achilles’ heel of business and everyone else’s cybersecurity. Employees and customers tend to prefer passwords such as “12345” that are easy to remember — and easy to crack. Organizations can insist their employees choose strong passwords, but this is much harder to enforce with customers, who can simply take their business elsewhere.

However, even the strongest passwords remain vulnerable to phishing attacks that trick users into revealing them. Moreover, in the age of big data and enormous traffic volume, even today’s strong passwords may prove all too vulnerable to systematic and relentless attacks.

Two-factor authentication is one improvement, but a full solution to the password challenge remains elusive. All the same, success in moving beyond passwords would be a foreign policy triumph felt directly by businesses everywhere.

Rick M Robinson

Rick Robinson is a writer and blogger, with a current 'day job' focus on the tech industry and a particular interest in the interplay of tech-driven factors ...
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