Obama Calls for Cyber Detente With Russia at G-20 Summit

The Cold War of the future lives on the internet.

Getty Images / Lintao Zhang

President Barack Obama would rather not engage Russia in a cybersecurity arms race, he announced Monday from the G-20 Summit in China. His call for diplomacy came with side of veiled threat — if Russia wants to pick a fight, it’s one they will ultimately lose, he said.

“We’ve had problems with cyber-intrusions from Russia in the past, from other countries in the past,” Obama said. “We’re moving into a new era where countries have significant capacities but frankly we have more capacity than anybody, both offensively and defensively.”

If the United States is beating Russia on hacking might, it hasn’t been demonstrating that power. Russia, on the other hand, is potentially implicated in the July hacking of the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The president sang a very different tune following the debut of his $5 billion Cybersecurity National Action Plan in February.

“Right now we are not as well organized as we need to be to make sure we’re dealing with all these threats,” Obama said at the time. Rather than wield power, the president is looking to other world leaders to join the United States in “instituting some norms” so that everyone acts responsibly.

“We’re going to have enough problems in the cyber space with non-state actors, who are engaging in theft and using the internet for all kinds of illicit practices,” Obama said.

Before the summit, a group of U.S. senators presented a letter to the president, pressing him to address cybersecurity in light of a February hacking in Bangladesh that allowed thieves to access the SWIFT banking network to withdraw nearly $81 million from an account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In July, the U.S. Treasury Department met to discuss bolstering cybersecurity at U.S. financial institutions, with Reuters reporting that the Federal Reserve had been hacked at least 50 times between 2011 to 2015.

“What we cannot do is have a situation in which suddenly this becomes the wild, wild West where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition or unhealthy competition,” Obama said.

While the president suggested that talks at the summit have been fruitful, it remains to be seen if countries like Russia are ready to cooperate on cyber regulations.

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