DAVOS, Switzerland — The world needs a treaty to prevent cyber attacks becoming an all-out war, the head of the main UN communications and technology agency warned Saturday.
International Telcommunications Union secretary general Hamadoun Toure gave his warning at a World Economic Forum debate where experts said nations must now consider when a cyber attack becomes a declaration of war.
With attacks on Google from China a major talking point in Davos, Toure said the risk of a cyber conflict between two nations grows every year.
He proposed a treaty in which countries would engage not to make the first cyber strike against another nation.
"A cyber war would be worse than a tsunami -- a catastrophe," the UN official said, highlighting examples such as attacks on Estonia last year.
He proposed an international accord, adding: "The framework would look like a peace treaty before a war."
Countries should guarantee to protect their citizens and their right to access to information, promise not to harbour cyber terrorists and "should commit themselves not to attack another."
John Negroponte, former director of US intelligence, said intelligence agencies in the major powers would be the first to "express reservations" about such an accord.
Susan Collins, a US Republican senator who sits on several Senate military and home affairs committees, said the prospect of a cyber attack sparking a war is now being considered in the United States.
"If someone bombed the electric grid in our country and we saw the bombers coming in it would clearly be an act of war.
"If that same country uses sophisticated computers to knock out our electricity grid, I definitely think we are getting closer to saying it is an act of war," Collins said.
Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer for Microsoft, said "there are at least 10 countries in the world whose internet capability is sophisticated enough to carry out cyber attacks ... and they can make it appear to come from anywhere."
"The Internet is the biggest command and control centre for every bad guy out there," he said.
The head of online security company McAfee told another Davos debate Friday that China, the United States, Russia, Israel and France are among 20 countries locked in a cyberspace arms race and gearing up for possible Internet hostilities.
Mundie and other experts have said there is a growing need to police the internet to clampdown on fraud, espionage and the spread of viruses.
"People don't understand the scale of criminal activity on the internet. Whether criminal, individual or nation states, the community is growing more sophisticated," the Microsoft executive said.
"We need a kind of World Health Organisation for the Internet," he said.
"When there is a pandemic, it organises the quarantine of cases. We are not allowed to organise the systematic quarantine of machines that are compromised."
He also called for a "driver's license" for internet users.
"If you want to drive a car you have to have a license to say that you are capable of driving a car, the car has to pass a test to say it is fit to drive and you have to have insurance."
Andre Kudelski, chairman of Kudelski Group, said that a new internet might have to be created forcing people to have two computers that cannot connect and pass on viruses. "One internet for secure operations and one internet for freedom."
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