The world’s richest nations have agreed for the first time to abstain, in principle, from hacking for commercial gain. At the G20 conference attended by countries including the US, China, Russia, France, and Germany, world leaders agreed that “no country should conduct or support [computer]-enabled theft of intellectual property […] with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.”
This is by no means a legally binding agreement, but some argue that it gives countries justification if they want to react to future acts of economically-motivated hacking. “Words have an effect, and people have now committed not to do this,” cyber-policy expert James A. Lewis told The Washington Post, adding that if a country breaks the promise “you respond,” for example, with economic sanctions. However, past evidence suggests that it’s economic threats like these — rather than publicly-announced agreements — that carry the real weight, and even then, such warnings can go ignored.
The case in point is the ongoing dispute over economic espionage between the US and China, with claims earlier this year that Chinese hackers linked to the country’s military had targeted more than a hundred American companies, including Coca-Cola and the security firm RSA. In September, the two superpowers announced that they had finally reached a “common understanding” to not conduct economic espionage, but this was only after the White House alluded to the possible use of “financial sanctions” against China.
Even after this agreement had been reached, a US security firm claimed that there had been subsequent cyber attacks by hackers “affiliated with the Chinese government” against seven American firms. The US government made no comments on these claims, although an unnamed White House official told The Wall Street Journal: “We have and will continue to directly raise our concerns regarding cybersecurity with the Chinese.”
This suggests that despite the public agreements made by the G20, economic espionage will continue to be a murky and unaccountable issue in international relations. And the text of the G20 communiqué made no mention of hacking for military advantage or old-fashioned espionage — that’s still a free-for-all.