French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, attend a working session during the Foreign ministers of G7 nations meeting in Dinard, France, April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/Pool
US deputy secretary of state John Sullivan, centre, said the aim was to prevent a range of threats, from cyber theft to strategic attacks © Reuters

Western democracies are planning a cyber space strategy to protect their political systems from internet attacks and manipulation of social media by foreign powers such as Russia and China, and to provide a framework for sanctions and public exposure of offenders.

The proposal was discussed at the weekend by foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations who gathered in the French resort of Dinard. John Sullivan, US deputy secretary of state, said the aim was to prevent a range of threats, from cyber theft to strategic attacks, as well as to identify and punish those responsible, especially foreign governments, if a cyber offensive was successful.

“We had a major cyber intrusion, the so-called NotPetya intrusion last year, that the US attributed to Russia. And we are looking to get allies and partners to join us in that type of attribution and then impose penalties, sanctions and other restrictions,” Mr Sullivan told the Financial Times. “Protection of our democratic systems is, I think, something that unites us. That’s why the G7 is still relevant.”

EU members are preparing for attempts to undermine the European elections to be held in May, while Chrystia Freeland, Canadian foreign minister, said she was “very concerned” about possible interference in the country’s national elections this year.

“Our judgment is that interference is very likely and we think there have probably already been efforts by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy,” Ms Freeland said, adding that the aim of the attackers was not so much to secure a particular outcome but to “make our democracies more polarised”.

On Saturday, the G7 announced it aimed to set up a “Cyber Norm Initiative” to share best practices and would encourage other nations to join. The declaration, however, fell short of the ambitions of the French hosts to produce a code of conduct to define offensive and defensive strategies in cyber space.

The G7 is made up of the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Canada. After 1997, it became the G8 for nearly two decades with the inclusion of Russia, but the country was ejected from the group after it invaded and annexed Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014.

Jeremy Hunt, UK foreign secretary, said on Friday that states such as Russia had “a very active, planned, thought-through strategy . . . to interfere in democratic processes in western countries and sow dissension and chaos wherever they can”. Apart from attacking the US and Ukraine, hackers had targeted the UK and German parliaments.

Mr Hunt said that while nations were getting better at fending off attacks, “what we do not do at the moment is deter them from happening in the first place”.

He continued: “So one of the discussions [at the G7] . . . is what we need to do as an effective deterrent strategy to make the price of trying to interfere with our democratic processes too high. At the moment we do not have that deterrent strategy.”

Asked whether democracies would respond with financial sanctions against attackers or simply public exposure, Mr Sullivan said: “All of that.”

Japan had expressed concern about Chinese activities in cyber space to influence Taiwan’s elections and to promote Beijing’s geographical claims and its view of history, according to one Japanese official.

“There are worrying incidents in the Asian region,” the official said, noting the use by Beijing of diaspora Chinese — including students, academics and business people — to publicise the views and messages of the country’s authoritarian government over the internet.

G7 interior ministers meeting in Paris discussed ways of ensuring that technology companies and social media platforms mark and remove terrorist content from the internet as quickly as possible. The problem was highlighted by the live-streaming on Facebook of last month’s mass shootings in the New Zealand city of Christchurch by a white supremacist.

The UK and Canada have meanwhile enlisted Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer, to co-chair a new legal panel to promote media freedom. It would propose reforms to national laws to bring them into line with international standards, and suggest ways of increasing the political costs of non-compliance.

“Those with a pen in their hand should not feel a noose around their neck,” she said.

The UK’s Mr Hunt said the aim was to make it “an international taboo of the highest order to murder, arrest or detain journalists”. Last year 99 were killed, 60 held hostage and 348 detained, he said.

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