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Podcast: Would the proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty hurt more than it helps?

Global Stage Podcast | Patching the System | Would the proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty hurt more than it helps?

TRANSCRIPT: Would the proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty hurt more than it helps?

Disclosure: The opinions expressed by Eurasia Group analysts in this podcast episode are their own, and may differ from those of Microsoft and its affiliates.

NICK ASHTON HART: We want to actually see a result that improves the situation for real citizens that actually protects victims of real crimes and that doesn't allow //cybercrime to go unpunished. That's in no one's interest.

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: By allowing countries to set their own standards of what constitutes a serious crime, the states are opening the door for authoritarian countries to misuse this treaty as a tool for persecution. The treaty needs to be critically examined and revised to ensure that it's truly served its purpose in tackling cybercrimes without undermining human rights.

ALI WYNE: It's difficult to overstate the growing impact of international cybercrime. Many of us either have been victims of criminal activity online or know someone who has been.

Cybercrime is also a big business, it's one of the top 10 risks highlighted in the World Economic Forum's 2023 Global Risk Report, and it's estimated that it could cost a world more than $10 trillion by 2025. Now, global challenges require global cooperation, but negotiations of a new UN Cybercrime Treaty have been complicated by questions around power, free speech and privacy online.

Welcome to Patching the System, a special podcast from the Global Stage series, a partnership between GZERO Media and Microsoft. I'm Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group. Throughout this series, we're highlighting the work of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, a public commitment from more than 150 global technology companies dedicated to creating a safer cyber world for all of us.

In this episode, we'll explore the current draft of what would be the first United Nations Cybercrime Treaty, the tense negotiations behind the scenes, and the stakes that governments and private companies have in those talks.

Last season we spoke about the UN Cybercrime Treaty negotiations when they were still relatively early on in the process. While they had been kicked off by a Russia-sponsored resolution that passed in 2019, there had been delays due to COVID-19.

In 2022, there was no working draft and member states were simply making proposals about what should be included in a cybercrime treaty, what kinds of criminal activity it should address, and what kinds of cooperation it should enable.

Here's Amy Hogan-Burney of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit speaking back then:

AMY HOGAN-BURNEY: There is a greater need for international cooperation because as cyber crime escalates, it’s clearly borderless and it clearly requires both public sector and the private sector to work on the problem. Although I am just not certain that I think that a new treaty will actually increase that cooperation. And I’m a little concerned that it might do more harm than good. And so, yes, we want to be able to go after cyber criminals across jurisdiction. But at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re protecting fundamental freedoms, always respectful of privacy and other things. Also, we’re always mindful of authoritarian states that may be using these negotiations to criminalize content or freedom of expression.

Now a lot has happened since then as we've moved from the abstract to the concrete. The chair of the UN Negotiating Committee released a first draft of the potential new cybercrime treaty last June, providing the first glimpse into what could be new international law and highlighting exactly what's at stake. The final draft is expected in November with the diplomatic conference to finalize the text starting in late January 2024.

Joining me are Nick Ashton-Hart, head of delegation to the Cybercrime Convention Negotiations for the Cybersecurity Tech Accord and Katitza Rodriguez, policy director for global privacy at a civil society organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for inviting us.

NICK ASHTON-HART: It's a pleasure to be here.

ALI WYNE: Let's dive right into the cybercrime treaty. Now, this process started as a UN resolution sponsored by Russia and it was met early on by a lot of opposition from Western democracies, but there were also a lot of member states who genuinely thought that it was necessary to address cybercrime. So give us the broad strokes as to why we might want a cybercrime treaty?

NICK ASHTON-HART: The continuous expansion of cybercrime at an explosive growth rate is clearly a problem and one that the private sector would like to see more effectively addressed because of course, we're on the front lines of addressing it as victims of it. At one level it sounds like an obvious candidate for international action.

In reality, of course, there is the Budapest Convention on cybercrime, which was agreed in 2001. It is not just a convention that European countries can join, any member state can join. If there hadn't been any international convention, then you could see how it would be an obvious thing to work on.

This was controversial from the beginning because there is one and it's widely implemented. I think it's 68 countries, but 120 countries' laws have actually been impacted by the convention. There was also a question because of who was asking for it. This also raised more questions than answers.

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: For us, civil society, I don't think the treaty is necessary because there are other international treaties, but I do understand why some states are trying to push for this treaty because they feel that their system for law enforcement cooperation is just too slow or not reliable. And they have argued that they have not been able to set up effective mutual legal assistance treaties, but we think the reasons fall short, especially because there are lot of these existing mechanisms include solid human rights safeguards, and when the existing mutual legal assistance treaty for international cooperation does not work well, we believe they can be improved and fixed.

And just let's be real, there are some times when not cooperating is actually the right thing to do, especially when criminal investigations could lead to prosecution of individuals for their political belief, their sexual or protection, gender identity or simply for speaking out of protesting peacefully or insulting the president or the king.

On top of that, this treaty as is stand now, might not even make the cybercrime cooperation process any faster. The negotiators are aiming for mandatory cooperation of almost all crimes on this planet and not just cybercrimes. This could end up bogging down the system even more.

ALI WYNE: Nick, let me just ask you, are there any specific aspects of a new global cybercrime treaty that you think could be genuinely helpful to citizens around the world?

NICK ASHTON-HART: Well, if for one it focused only on cybercrime, that would be the most fundamental issue. The current trajectory would have this convention address all crimes of any kind, which is clearly an ocean boiling exercise and creates many more problems than it solves. There are many developing countries who will say, as Katitza has noted, that they don't receive timely law enforcement cooperation through the present system because if you are not a part of the Budapest Convention, honestly you have to have a bilateral treaty relationship with every country that you want to have law enforcement cooperation with.

And clearly, every country negotiating a mutual legal assistance treaty with 193 others is not a recipe for an international system that's actually effective. That's where an instrument like this can come in and set a basic common set of standards so that all parties feel confident that the convention’s provisions will not be taken advantage of for unacceptable purposes.

ALI WYNE: Katitza, I want to bring you back into the conversation. On balance, what do you think of the draft of the treaty as it stands now as we approach the end of 2023?

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: Honestly, I'm pretty worried. The last negotiation session in New York made it crystal clear that we're short of time and there is still a lot left undecided, especially on critical issues like defining the treaty scope and ensuring human rights are protected.

The treaty was supposed to tackle cybercrime, but it's morphing into something much broader, a general purpose surveillance tool that could apply to any crime, tech involvement or not, as long as there is digital evidence. We're extremely far from our original goal and opening a can of worms. I agree with Nick when he said that a treaty with a tight focus on just actual cybercrimes topped with solid human right protections could really make a difference. But sadly what we are seeing right now is very far from that.

Many countries are pushing for sweeping surveillance powers, hoping to access real-time location data and communication for a wide array of crimes with minimum legal safeguards, the check and balance to put limits to curb potential abuse of power. This is a big red flag for us.

On the international cooperation front, it's a bit of a free for all the treaty leaves it up to individual countries to set their own standards for privacy and human rights when using these surveillance powers in cross border investigations.

And we know that the standards of some countries are very far from minimal standards, yet every country that signs a treaty is expected to implement these cross-border cooperation powers. And here's where it gets really tricky. This sets a precedent for international cooperation on investigations, even into activities that might be considered criminal in one country but are actually forms of free expression. This includes laws against so-called fake news, peaceful protests, blasphemy, or expressing non-conforming sexual orientation or gender identity. These are matters of human rights.

ALI WYNE: Nick, from your perspective, what are the biggest concerns for industry right now with the text, with the negotiations as they're ongoing? What are the biggest concerns for industry and is there any major provision that you think is missing right now from the current text?

NICK ASHTON-HART: Firstly, I will say that industry actually agrees with everything you just heard from EFF. And that's one of the most striking things about this negotiation, is in more than 25 years of working in multilateral policy, I have never seen all NGOs saying the same thing to the extent that is the case in this negotiation. Across the board, we have the same concerns. We may emphasize some more than others or put a different level of emphasis on certain things, but we all agree comprehensively, I think, about the problems.

One thing that's very striking is this is a convention which is fundamentally about the sharing of personal information about real people between countries. There is no transparency at all at any point. In fact, the convention repeatedly says that all of these transfers of information should be kept secret.

This is the reality that they are talking about agreeing to, is a convention where countries globally share the personal information of citizens with no transparency at all. Ask yourself if that is a situation which isn't likely to be abused, because I think we know the answer. It's the old joke about you know who somebody is if you put them in a room and turn the lights off. Well, the lights are off and the light switch doesn't exist in this treaty.

And so that, to us, is simply invidious in 2024 that you would see that bearing the UN logo - it would be outrageous. And that's just the starting place. There's also provisions that would allow one country to ask another to seize the person of say a tech worker who is on holiday, or a government worker who is traveling that has access to passwords of secure systems, to seize that person and demand that that person turn over those codes with no reference back to their employer.

As Katitza has said, it also allows for countries to ask others to provide the location data and communication metadata about where a person is in real time along with real time access to their computer information. This is clearly subject to abuse, and we brought this up with some delegations and they said, "Well, but countries do this already, so do we have to worry about it?"

I just found that an astonishing level of cynicism: the fact that people abuse international law isn't an argument for trying to limit their ability to do it in this context. We have a fundamental disconnect where we're asking to trust all countries in the world to operate in the dark, in secret, forever and that that will work out well for human rights.

ALI WYNE: Katitza, let me bring you back into the conversation. You heard Nick's assessment. I'd like to ask you to react to that assessment and also to follow up with you, do you think that there are any critical provisions that need to be added to the current text of the draft treaty?

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I agree on many of the points that Nick made. One, keeping a sharp focus on so-called cybercrimes, is not only crucial for protecting human rights, our point of view, but it's also key to making this whole cooperation work. We have got countries left and right pointing out the flaws in the current international cooperation mechanisms, saying they are too flawed, too complex. And yet here we are heading towards a treaty that could cover a limitless list of crimes. That's not just missing the point, it's setting us up for even more complexity when the goal should be working better together, easier to tackle this very serious crimes like ransomware attacks that we have seen everywhere lately.

There is a few things that are also very problematic that are more into the details. One is one that Nick mentioned, this provision that could be used to coerce individual engineers, people who have knowledge to be able to access systems, to compel them to bypass their own security measures or the measures of their own employees, without the company actually knowing and putting the engineer into trouble because it won't be able to tell their employer that they are working on behalf of the law enforcement. I think it's really Draconian, these provisions, and it's also very bad for security, for encryption, for keeping us more safe.

But there's another provision that is also very problematic for us. It's the one that on international cooperation too, when it mentions that states should share, "Items or data required for analysis of investigations." The way it's phrased, it is very vague and leaves room for a state's ability to share entire databases or artificial intelligence trainings data to be shared. This could include biometrics data, data that is very sensitive and it's a human rights minefield here. We have seen how biometric data, face and voice recognition can be used against protestors, minorities, journalists, and migrants in certain countries. This treaty shouldn't become a tool that facilitates such abuses on an international scale.

And we also know that Interpol, in the mix too, is developing this massive predictive analytic system fed by all sorts of data, but it will be also with information data provided by member states. The issue with predictive policing is that it's often pitched as unbiased since it's based on data and not personal data, but we know that's far from the truth. It's bound to disproportionately affect Black and other over-policed communities. The data feeds into these systems comes from a racially biased criminal punishment systems and arrests in Black neighborhoods are disproportionately high. Even without explicit racial information, the data is tainted.

One other one:Human rights safeguards in the treaty as Nick says, they're in secret and the negotiation, no transparency, we fully agreed on that, but they are very weak.

As it stands, the main human rights safeguards in the treaty don't even apply to the international co-operation chapter, which is a huge gap. It defers to national law, whatever national law says, and as I said before, for one country this is good and for others it's bad and that's really problematic.

ALI WYNE: Nick, in terms of the private sector and in terms of technology companies, what are the practical concerns when it comes to potential misuses or abuses of the treaty from the perspective specifically of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord?

NICK ASHTON-HART: In the list of criminal acts in the convention, at the present time, none of them actually require criminal intent, but that is not actually the case at the moment. The criminal acts are only defined as "Acts done intentionally without right." This opens the door for all kinds of abuses. For example, security researchers often attempt to break into systems in order to find defects that they can then notify the vendors of, so these can be fixed. This is a fundamentally important activity for the security of all systems globally. They are intentionally breaking into the system but not for a negative purpose, for an entirely positive one.

But the convention does not recognize how important it is not to criminalize security researchers. The Budapest Convention, by contrast, actually does this. It has very extensive notes on the implementation of the convention, which are a part of the ratification process, meaning countries should not only implement the exact text of the convention, but they should do so in a rule of law-based environment that does, among other things, protect security researchers.

We have consistently said to the member states, "You need to make clear that criminal intent is the standard." The irony here is this is actually not complicated because this is a fundamental concept of criminal law called mens rea, which says that with the exception of certain crimes like murder, for someone to be convicted, you have to find that they had criminal intent.

Without that, you have the security researchers’ problem. You also have the issue that whistleblowers are routinely providing information that they're providing without authorization, for example, to journalists or also to watchdog agencies of government. Those people would also fall foul of the convention as its currently written, as would journalists' sources, depending on the legal environment in which they're implemented. Like civil society, we have consistently pointed out these glaring omissions and yet no country including the developed Western countries that you would expect would seize upon this, none of them have moved to include protections for any of these situations.

I have to say that's one of the most disappointing things about this negotiation is so far most of the Western democracies are not acting to prevent abuses of this convention and they are resisting any efforts from all of us in civil society and the private sector urging them to take action and they're refusing to do so. There are two notable exceptions which is New Zealand and Canada, but the rest, frankly, are not very helpful.

Some of the other issues that we have is that it should be much clearer that if there's a conflict of law problem where a country asks for cooperation of a provider and the provider says to them, "Look, if we provide this information to you, it's coming from another jurisdiction and it would cause us to break the law in that jurisdiction." We have repeatedly said to the member states, "You need to provide for this situation because it happens routinely today and in such an instance it's up to the two cooperating states to work out between themselves how that data can be provided in a way that does not require the provider to break the law."

If you want to see more effective cooperation and more expeditious cooperation, you would want more safeguards, as Katitza has mentioned. There's a direct connection between how quickly cooperation requests go through and the level of safeguards and comfort with the legal system of the requesting and requested states.

Where a request goes through quickly, it's because the states both see that their legal systems are broadly compatible in terms of rights and the treatment of accused persons and appeals and the like. And so they not only see that the crimes are the same, called dual criminality, but that also the accused will be treated in a way that's broadly compatible with the home jurisdiction. And so there's a natural logic to saying, "Since we know this is the case, we should provide for this in here and ensure robust safeguards because that will produce the cooperation that everyone wants." Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. The cooperation elements continue to be weakened by poor safeguards.

ALI WYNE: I think that both of you have made clear that the stakes are very high for whether this treaty comes to pass, what will the final text be? What will the final provisions be? But just to put a fine point on it, are there concerns that this treaty could also set a precedent for future cybercrime legislation across jurisdictions? I can imagine this treaty serving as a north star in places that don't already have cybercrime laws in place, so Katitza, let me begin with you.

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: Yes, your are concerns and indeed very valid and very pressing. By setting a precedent where broad intrusive surveillance tools are made available for an extensive range of crimes, we risk normalizing a global landscape where human rights are secondary to state surveillance and control. Law enforcement needs ensured access to data, but the check and balances and the safeguards is to ensure that we can differentiate between the good cops and the bad cops. The treaty provides a framework that could empower states to use the guise of cybercrime prevention to clamp down on activities that are protected under human right law.

And I think that this broad approach not only diverts valuable resources and attention away for tackling genuine cybercrimes, but also offers – and here to answer your question - an example for future legislation that could facilitate this repressive state's practice. It sends a message that this is acceptable to use invasive surveillance tools to gather evidence for any crime deemed serious by a particular country irrespective of the human rights implications. And that's wrong.

By allowing countries to set their own standards of what constitutes a serious crime, the states are opening the door for authoritarian countries to misuse this treaty as a tool for persecution. The treaty needs to be critically examined and revised to ensure that it's truly served its purpose in tackling cybercrimes without undermining human rights. The stakes are high and I know it's difficult, but we're talking about the UN and we're talking about the UN charter. The international community must work together to ensure that they can protect security and also fundamental rights.

NICK ASHTON-HART: I think Katitza has hit the nail on the head, and there's one particular element I'd like to add to this is something like 40% of the world's countries at the moment either do not have cybercrime legislation or are revising quite old cybercrime legislation. They are coming to this convention, they've told us this, they've coming to this convention because they believe this can be the forcing mechanism, the template that they can use in order to ensure that they get the cooperation that they're interested in.

So the normative impact of this convention would be far greater than in a different situation, for example, where there was already a substantial level of legislation globally and it had been in place in most countries for a long enough period for them to have a good baseline of experience in what actually works in prosecuting cybercrimes and what doesn't.

But we're not in that situation. We're pretty much in the opposite situation and so this convention will have a disproportionately high impact on legislation in many countries because with the technical assistance that will come with it, it'll be the template that is used. Knowing that that is the case, we should be even more conservative in what we ask this convention to do and even more careful to ensure that what we do will actually help prosecute real cybercrimes and not facilitate cooperation on other crimes.

This makes things even more concerning for the private sector because of this. We want to actually see a result that improves the situation for real citizens that actually protects victims of real crimes and that doesn't allow as is unfortunately the case here, even large-scale cybercrime to go unpunished. That's in no one's interest, but this convention will not actually help with that. At this point we would have to see it as net harmful to that objective, which is supposed to be a core objective.

ALI WYNE: We've discussed quite extensively the need for international agreements when it comes to cybercrime. We've also mentioned some of the concerns about the current deal on the table. Nick, what would you need to see to mitigate some of the concerns that you have about the current deal on the table?

NICK ASHTON-HART: The convention should be limited to the offenses that it contains. Its provisions should not be available for any other criminal activity or cooperation. That would be the starting place. The second thing would be to inscribe crimes that are self-evidently criminal through providing for mens rea in all the articles to avoid the problems with whistleblowers, and journalists and security researchers. There should be a separate commitment that the provisions of this convention do not apply to actors acting in good faith to secure systems such as those that have been described. There must be, we think, transparency. There is no excuse for a user not to be notified at the point that the offense for which their data was accessed has been adjudicated or the prosecution abandoned and that should be explicitly provided.

People have a right to know what governments are doing with their personal information. We think it should be much clearer what dual criminality is. It should be very straightforward that without dual criminality, no cooperation under the convention will take place so that requests go through more quickly. It's much more clear that it is basically the same crime in all the cooperating jurisdictions. I would say those were the most important.

ALI WYNE: Katitza, you get the last word. What would you need to see to mitigate some of the concerns that you've expressed in our conversation about the current draft text on the table?

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: First of all, we need to rethink how we handle refusals for cross border investigations. The treaty is just too narrow here, offering barely any room to say no. Even when the request to cooperate violates, or is inconsistent with human rights law. We need to make dual criminality a must to invoke the international cooperation powers, as Nick says. This dual criminality principle is a safeguard. That means that if it is not a crime in both countries involved, the treaty shouldn't allow for any assistance. You also need clear mandatory human rights safeguards in all international cooperation, that are robust - with notification, transparency, oversight mechanisms. Countries need to actively think about potential human regulations before using these powers.

It also helps if we only allow cooperation for genuine cybercrimes like real core cybercrimes, and not just any crime involving a computer, or that is generating electronic evidence, which today even the electronic toaster could leave digital evidence.

I just want to conclude by saying actual cybercrime investigations are often highly sophisticated and there's a case to be made for an international effort focused on investigating those crimes, but including every crime under the sun in its scope and sorry, it's really a big problem.

This treaty fails to create that focus. The second thing it also fails to provide these safeguards for security researchers, which Nick explained. We’re fully agreed on that. Security researchers are the ones who make our systems safe. Criminalizing what they do and not providing the effective, safeguards, it really contradicts the core aim of the treaty, which is actually to make us more secure to fight cybercrime. So we need a treaty that it's narrow on the scope and protects human rights. The end result however, is a cybercrime treaty that may well do more to undermine cybersecurity than to help it.

ALI WYNE: A really thought-provoking note on a which to close. Nick Ashton-Hart, head of delegation to the cybercrime convention negotiations for the Cybersecurity Tech Accord and Katitza Rodriguez, policy director for global privacy at A Civil Society Organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Nick, Katitza, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

NICK ASHTON-HART: Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure.

KATITZA RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me on. Muchas gracias. It was a pleasure.

ALI WYNE: That's it for this episode of Patching the System. Catch all of the episodes from this season, exploring topics such as cyber mercenaries and foreign influence operations by following Ian Bremmer's GZERO World feed anywhere you get your podcasts. I'm Ali Wyne, thanks for listening.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform, to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

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