Microsoft President Brad Smith gave a speech on Tuesday, in which he called on world leaders to form an international body that can establish the rules of digital warfare, akin to the rules put in place on traditional warfare by the Geneva Convention.

In the speech, Smith said that recent hacking of elections in nation-states around the globe such as occurred in the 2016 American presidential election has demonstrated the necessity for establishing global norms in the digital sphere, and an organized body tasked with policing them.

“Just as the world’s governments came together in 1949 to adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in times of war, we need a Digital Geneva Convention that will commit governments to implement the norms needed to protect civilians on the internet in times of peace,” Smith said in a draft of a blog he released to Reuters after the speech.

Prior to leaving office, President Barack Obama placed sanctions on Moscow for their involvement in a concerted digital campaign intended to discredit Democratic Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, and believed to be an effort to undermine the American election process as a whole in the eyes of its citizens.  Although President Trump has shied away from concretely agreeing with Obama and most of the intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian involvement, he has also stated on multiple occasions that digital security will be at the forefront of his administration’s concerns.

“We suddenly find ourselves living in a world where nothing seems off-limits to nation-state attacks,” Smith said in his opening keynote speech at the RSA computer security conference on Tuesday.

“Even in a world of growing nationalism, when it comes to cybersecurity the global tech sector needs to operate as a neutral Digital Switzerland. We will not aid in attacking customers anywhere. We need to retain the world’s trust.”

Calling on tech companies to remain neutral could prove rather difficult, as each organization is governed by the laws in the nations it operates within.  If the United States passes legislation mandating the cooperation of technology companies like Microsoft, they could find themselves subject to economic penalties or worse for violating the law.  Other nations, particularly ones with a less transparent government practices like China, could easily pass such laws that would make those companies unwilling to aid in government efforts lose out on a huge marketplace, and in turn, a huge share of the industry’s profits.

“Just as the United States and China overcame mutual challenges and made important progress in 2015 to ban intellectual property cyber-theft, the United States and Russia can hammer out a future agreement to ban the nation-state hacking of all the civilian aspects of our economic and political infrastructures,” Smith said, calling on the United States and one of its biggest political opponents to work together in establishing a precedent for the rest of the world to follow.

Accusations of Russia’s involvement in a number of European elections have already been levied against Putin’s administration in the months since the American intelligence community came to a near total consensus regarding Russia’s efforts in America’s recent election.  Russia’s use of seemingly mainstream media outlets like Sputnik and RT also muddy the waters, as their news stories are not “hacking” in any sense, but rather a calculated propaganda effort that likely would be difficult to ban even under such a Geneva convention-like agreement.

Despite the unlikelihood of Russia participating in such an agreement, as they won’t even admit to their current digital campaigns, the future may require just such an approach, as technology continues to advance at a rate that makes limiting international influence on elections increasingly troublesome, and the media sphere becomes more saturated with outlets for both real and fake news.  The question is, with our government scrambling to understand the ways in which foreign powers have infiltrated our own election process, that of the most powerful nation on earth, how do we propose to regulate that which so few within our own government even understand?  It’s a difficult question, but one that may need to be answered in the years to come.


Image courtesy of Getty Images