UN chief warns of perils of ‘weaponizing digital technologies’ and malicious activity in cyberspace

 

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations chief warned Thursday that “the perils of weaponizing digital technologies are growing by the year” and malicious activity in cyberspace is on the rise by governments, non-government actors and criminals.

At the same time, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “the misuse of digital technology is becoming more sophisticated and stealthy, malware, wipers and trojans are proliferating” and cyber operations enabled by artificial intelligence are multiplying the threat.

In addition, he warned the U.N. Security Council that “quantum computing could break down entire systems with its ability to breach encryption.”

On the positive side, Guterres said digital advances “are revolutionizing economies and societies,” not only bringing people together but delivering news, information and education and enabling citizens to access government services and institutions.

But instant connectivity that powers enormous benefits is also leaving people, institutions and governments vulnerable, he said.

Guterres said cybersecurity incidents have become “disturbingly common” from disruptions to health, banking and telecommunications services to “relentless illicit activity” including by criminal organizations and so-called “cyber-mercenaries.”

The secretary-general also pointed to “a legion of hate merchants littering the information superhighway with fear and division” and the increasing use of cyberspace as a weapon in conflicts. “And the growing integration of digital tools with weapon systems, including autonomous systems, presents new vulnerabilities,” he said.

Guterres said software vulnerabilities are being exploited and ways to achieve this are even being sold on the Internet.

“Ransomware is one grievous example – a huge threat to public and private institutions and the critical infrastructure people depend on,” he said. “According to some estimates, total ransomware payments reached $1.1 billion in 2023.”

But the U.N. chief said beyond these costs such intrusions impact peace, security and stability within and among countries.

“Malicious activity that undermines public institutions, electoral processes and online integrity erodes trust, fuels tensions, and even sows the seeds of violence and conflict,” he said.

Guterres has been calling for global efforts to ensure that cyberspace and AI are regulated to ensure they are oriented to promoting responsible behavior of these technologies.

He has invited leaders of the 193 U.N. member nations to a Summit of the Future during their annual gathering at the General Assembly in late September, and he told the council it “represents a pivotal chance to support the maintenance of international peace and security in cyberspace.”

He also welcomed the General Assembly’s consideration of “the applicability of international law to state activities in this domain,” and its efforts to reach consensus on a new cybercrime treaty in the coming months “which should deepen cooperation while protecting human rights online.”

South Korea chose the topic of cybersecurity as the signature event during its presidency of the Security Council this month. Its Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul read a statement on behalf of 63 countries before the meeting recognizing the challenge of the malicious use of cyberspace and welcoming the council’s focus on the issue for only the second time.

It said more council meetings and briefings are essential so that the U.N.’s most powerful body can “remain agile and relevant in light of the rapidly evolving technology” and especially its impact on international peace and security.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed the United States’ commitment “to work with all responsible actors to safeguard the benefits of cyberspace, build digital solidarity and leverage technology” to meet U.N. development goals for 2030.

But she said too many governments and non-government players are exploiting digital connectivity to extort victims and steal money and ideas from governments and private companies and organizations.

Thomas-Greenfield said the council must work together and strengthen the requirements of responsible behavior and hold countries responsible for violations.

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