Should the ITU Handle Cybersecurity or Cybercrime?

Cybercrime and cybersecurity are two very important topics that are largely being lost in the noise around the American elections, the Arab Spring, or the European banking crisis.  Nevertheless, there is an attempt by the ITU and some governments to take a more active role in this space.

Roughly defined, cybercrime is a crime that occurs or is facilitated by computers.  Cybersecurity is the actions taken to protect against cybercrime.  This includes protection of devices so that they don’t get broken into, and remediation.

Cybercrime itself is a complex issue.  It relates to many things, including fraud, data theft, privacy theft, and just about any criminal endeavor that happened before the term “cyber” ever came to be.  There’s a great paper by a laundry list of Who’s Who in the economics of cybersecurity that proposes methods of estimating actual losses, breaking down crime into various categories.  Statistics in this space are remarkably fluid- that is, there are poor standards for data collection.

As it turns out, there is a treaty on cybercrime, conveniently called The Convention on Cybercrime, developed in the Council of Europe.  Nearly all of Europe, as well as the U.S. and a number of other countries have ratified this treaty, and there other signatories.  Research from the University of Singapore has already shown that either accession to the treaty or even becoming congruent with it will reduce a country’s cybercrime rate.  While the causalities are not clearly explained in that paper, one part is obvious: the first part of the treaty is what amounts to a best practices document for governments, on how they should develop legislation.

The treaty itself is fairly involved and took many years to get as many signatures as it did.  It has to deal with diverse societies who have differing constitutional views on freedom of speech and expression, as well as on due process.

The Secretary General of the ITU and his staff, as well as a few governments, have been under the impression that the ITU could do a better job than what was done by the Council of Europe.  There is little chance of this happening, and in all likelihood, they would make matters worse, if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) that anyone who already signed the Convention would have to reconcile differences between that and whatever would be created by the ITU.

There are other reasons the ITU cannot do better, not least of which is that they lack the technical expertise to actively engage in cybersecurity.  Part of the problem is that most Internet standards are not ITU standards, but come from elsewhere.  While the ITU has any number of standards involving fiber optics management, and good codec support, the computer you’re reading this blog on uses mostly the work of others.  Another reason is that the state of the art in both cybercrime and cybersecurity is rapidly moving, beyond the ITU’s capability to adapt.  Here’s just one example: contrary to what people had thought, the battle ground for cybercrime has not really moved to mobile devices.  As we’ve previously discussed, this has a lot to do with the update mechanisms and business models in play, but the most notable one being that applications on the iPhone in particular are both reviewed by Apple and signed.  The only iPhone you hear about being vulnerable is the one that has been cracked by the owner, and that doesn’t account for a whole lot.

One WCIT proposal that refers to spam as a threat demonstrates how far off some governments are on the subject.  Spam itself has never really been much of a threat, but more of an annoyance.  80-90% of it is never delivered to the end user, and most Evil Doers have moved on to more sophisticated approaches, such as spear phishing.  Worse, the ITU-T’s study group 17 had to take years simply to come up with a definition of spam, when it really was a problem.

This is not to say that the ITU shouldn’t have a role to play with cybersecurity.  The ITU has extraordinarily access to governments of developing countries, and can work with them to improve their cybersecurity posture, through training and outreach.  In fact they do some of this in their Development or ITU-D Sector.  One thing that the D sector has done recently has been to put developing governments in touch with FIRST, the organization that coordinates discussion among Computer Incident Response Teams or CIRTs.  But the ITU should give up any idea that it can play more of a role than outreach and capacity building, all of which should be done in consultation with actual experts.

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WCIT and the ITU?

Flag of ITU.svg

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is making the news these days, in part because there is about to be a treaty conference called the World Conferences on International Tariffs (WCIT).  What is the ITU? and what do they do?

The ITU is a specialized agency of the United Nations that focuses on telecommunications.  It has four components:

  • A general secretariat;
  • A standardization sector or ITU-T;
  • A radio coordination sector or ITU-R; and
  • A development sector or ITU-D;

The radio sector coordinates spectrum allocation and so-called “orbital satellite slots”.  It also is responsible for standardization of time.  The development sector focuses on the special needs of developing countries.  The standardization sector has over 150 years set international standards for telecommunications, starting with the telegraph.  The general secretariat manages logistics of the three sectors, and represents the ITU to other international fora, and to the U.N.

How has the ITU been relevant to you?  There are several key standards that are worth taking note of:

  • E.164 specifies pretty much what a telephone number looks like, starting with the international dialing code.
  • G.711, G.719 and others specify how voice is encoded into data.
  • X.509 is the basis for the public key infrastructure that is in use on the World Wide Web.
  • D.50 specifies accounting standards by which international carriers bill each other, or so-called settlement rates.  There’s real money involved in this one.

This is some pretty important stuff.

The ITU-T was formed out of the CCITT, which was a coordination committee, primarily made of European governments.  These days, its membership spans 193 countries. Only governments may vote, although civil society and paying sector members may have some influence.

So what is WCIT?  WCIT is a treaty-level conference in which all those lovely accounting rates are agreed upon.  But they’re not stopping there.  The ITU-T has had a very limited role in the Internet’s development.  Standardization and governance over the Internet falls to several classes of entities:

  • National governments with their own sets of laws;
  • Standards organizations such as the IEEE, IETF, W3C, and 3GPP; and
  • Not-for-profit organizations such as ICANN and Internet Registries.

This latter group focuses on what I call “internals”.  That is- how do you get an IP address or a domain name?  The Internet has grown over 1.25 billion users with very limited involvement of the ITU-T.

Now governments want to take a firmer hand in areas such as how addresses and names are allocated and cybersecurity.  That is what WCIT is about.

More about the ITU and WCIT in the future.

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A New Role For Eliot

As many of you know I have a long history within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), having been involved since 1989.  The IETF is responsible for many of the underlying protocols that computers use to talk with one another for purposes such as Email and the Web.  I have served as the chair of two working groups, a research group, and have written numerous drafts and requests for comments.

As of late I have been involved with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).   The ITU is a U.N. organization whose origins date back to at least 1869, long prior to forming of the U.N. The ITU has developed numerous data communication standards, including X.509, which is what web encryption uses, as well as many of the codecs that are used on the network to transmit voice and video.

Last May I was able to join the United States delegation to the World Telecommunications Development Conference (WTDC) in Hyderabad India.  Now I have been asked to serve as the Internet Architecture Board liaison to the ITU-T.  My role will be first and foremost to see that liaisons (messages between the organizations) are properly handled by the IAB and IETF.  I will advise the IAB and IETF on how the ITU-T functions, and the context around particular liaison statements.  Occasionally I will assist in drafting liaison statements.

These organizations operate quite differently.  The IETF is driven by individual participation, where people needn’t even attend meetings to participate in decisions.  The ITU-T is an intergovernmental organization in which only governments may make decisions, although others may advise.

This is an important role at an important time, because when these two organizations do not cooperate at some level, they end up duplicating and competing with each other’s work.  That can lead to more expensive products or products that do not work well together.

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