Playing With (Digital) Fire

Playing With (Digital) Fire

As any fan of martial arts knows, one of the best moves is to take an attacker's weapon and turn it back on them. In 2016, that's just what Beijing did – in cyberspace: after American operatives used a particular bit of code to attack Chinese computer systems, Chinese hackers took it, repurposed it, and used it to attack a bunch of US allies, according to The New York Times.

The technical details of the story are fascinating, but it also raises some big political questions:


If countries can't control their cyber arsenals, can they at least establish some ground rules for how they are used? Avoiding a destructive free-for-all in cyberspace may depend on it. But hacking tools aren't like conventional or nuclear arms, where countries have agreed to enforceable limits on capabilities and behavior. They're invisible, with no real way to count them or verify they've been destroyed, and prone to being stolen.

And despite an ongoing attempt by the US and its allies to deter bad behavior by indicting hackers, imposing sanctions, and even threatening military force in response to malicious cyber-attacks, there's nothing in cyberspace comparable to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that has helped deter and prevent conflicts between nuclear-armed powers.

Why is that so difficult? For one thing, it's relatively easy to hide your identityor get hired guns to do your bidding in cyberspace – making it hard for the victims of cyber-attacks to be 100 percent confident in targeting their response.

There's also a lot of mischief that state-backed hackers can get up to that is short of outright war, but can still hurt an adversary (think: swiping personal data that can help identify spies or stealing trade secrets). Governments don't want to give those capabilities up. This helps explain why attempts to establish widely agreed, enforceable "cyber norms" have made limited progress, despite 15 years of wrestling with the issue at the UN.

The upshot: We already knew the US was struggling to secure its cyber arsenal. Now we know that just using a cyber weapon means there's a risk it'll be stolen and used by someone else. As more countries gain access to these tools, reaching a basic agreement on rules of behavior will become even more important.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

News broke across the United States on Friday evening that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, ending her long and distinguished career as a jurist. Tributes poured in quickly from men and women on both sides of the political spectrum. But just as quickly, her death has sharply raised the stakes for the upcoming US elections for president and the Senate, as well as the longer-term ideological balance of the nation's top court.

A few thoughts.

First, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already made clear they will move quickly toward a Senate vote to confirm a replacement before the election. Neither man cares about arguments that they should wait until after the election to move forward. Trump will name the nominee within days, and McConnell will begin lining up the votes. Four years ago, McConnell refused to give a vote to Obama's pick to replace deceased Justice Antonin Scalia because it was an election year, although for McConnell that argument doesn't apply now.

Second, this may set the scene for large-scale protests in many American cities. As for the election itself, this fight, however it plays out, is only likely to increase enthusiasm among voters on both sides by reminding them of the larger stakes that come with a lifetime appointment that can swing the ideological balance of a divided court. The partisan battle over the 2018 confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh could be child's play compared to what could happen if Republicans try to confirm a nominee before the election, or even after it (especially if Trump loses).

Third, there will be no replacement for Ginsburg until a nominee can get 50 votes in the Senate. Of the 53 Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) have said in the past they don't believe a nominee should be rushed through close to an election. There are other names to watch, including a few in close races for re-election that might benefit by saying no to Trump. There is also Mitt Romney (Utah), the man who has emerged as Trump's most frequent Republican critic.

Fourth, here's the potential wildcard: The Constitution stipulates that there must be a Supreme Court, but it doesn't specify how many judges it should include. There have been more than nine justices in the past.

In theory, if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the election and Democrats win a majority in the Senate, Biden could nominate six new justices of his own for a 15-judge court. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried this ploy in 1937, it failed and dealt his presidency a heavy political blow. But 1937 is not 2020, and Biden might succeed where Roosevelt failed.

The bottom line: The death of Justice Ginsburg is a major plot twist for what has so far been a remarkably stable election, and it will reverberate through American politics for years to come.

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares his insights on the biggest development in US politics this week:

So, the scriptwriters for 2020 have thrown as a real curveball, introducing the most explosive element in US politics, just six weeks before the election. The tragic death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who will be remembered as a trailblazing jurist, but also a reliably liberal vote on a court that was divided along ideological lines with a five-four conservative majority. This has the potential to upend the presidential election. And likely will motivate turnout on both sides. But also, importantly for president, Trump could remind some Romney voting ex-Republicans who were leaning towards Biden why they were Republicans in the first place. Which means that it has the potential to push some persuadable voters back towards the president.

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The pandemic has forced this year's UN General Assembly to be mostly virtual, but will it prove to be an effective way for world leaders to discuss the critical issues of the moment? Ian Bremmer talks to UN Secretary-General António Guterres about the challenges of diplomacy in the Zoom where it happens. The exchange is part of a wide-ranging interview for GZERO World.

The episode begins airing nationally in the US on public television this Friday, September 18. Check local listings.

Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, discusses technology industry news today:

Does Trump's TikTok and WeChat ban infringe on American free speech rights?

I don't think that as a legal argument you could make the case that he's violated the law. But as a principle, potentially shutting down a vibrant platform where a lot of people say a lot of stuff, it doesn't look good. I think he's in violation of the spirit of the constitution, but I have a hard time viewing it as a legal matter.

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