China and U.S. to discuss cybersecurity deal

The United States and China are expected to announce an agreement governing the use of cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, according to a New York Times report

President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping will likely negotiate the agreement next week when President Xi visits Washington, D.C., and the outcome could be announced Friday. 

The New York Times calls it “the first arms control accord for cyberspace.” The agreement would likely protect infrastructure like power plants and hospitals from cyberattacks during peacetime, but would not apply in situations similar to the recent high-profile hack on the Office of Personnel Management, in which government employee information was stolen.

A senior administration official told the New York Times that the agreement between Presidents Obama and Xi would likely be a “generic embrace” of a United Nations code of conduct that prohibits damaging critical infrastructure. 

However, such a generic agreement would not address the cyberattacks that have grabbed headlines in the U.S., like the OPM hack that the U.S. attributed to China. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently told Congress that the OPM hack was not considered an attack—and therefore it would not be governed by the agreement currently under negotiation. “There was no destruction of data or manipulation of data,” Clapper said. “It was simply stolen. So that’s a passive intelligence collection activity, just as we do.” 

But an initial agreement over critical infrastructure could eventually extend to data collection and other areas, the Times reports. Tracking the agreement’s effects could be difficult, however—tracing an online attack back to its origin is not a simple task, making it hard to tell if either government is living up to its end of the bargain.

H/T The New York Times | Illustration by Max Fleishman

Kate Conger

Kate Conger

Kate Conger is a politics and cybersecurity journalist who currently writes for Gizmodo. Her work has previously appeared in BuzzFeed, Digital Trends, Real Clear Politics, San Francisco Examiner, and elsewhere. Together with Dell Cameron, she won the Society of Professional Journalists' award for Best Scoop in 2017 for a report on the leak of data about 200 million American voters.