Food for Thought: "Stopping the Downward Spiral"

"The time has come for a digital Geneva Convention", argues Telekom CEO Tim Höttges. "We should think on an intergovernmental level and strive for a legally binding treaty that condemns all kinds of cyber attacks."

Timotheus Höttges, CEO Deutsche Telekom AG (Photo: Ittermann, Telekom)

In the middle of Cyber Week, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) and Deutsche Telekom will be staging the fifth Cyber Security Summit (CSS) in Tel Aviv, Israel.


The CSS has established itself as a platform for some 150 leaders from around the globe – from politics, the military, academia and business – who are at the forefront of security-related cyber challenges. The CSS was founded in the belief that the ever-growing threats to our connected world call for a new dimension of connected defense – and for joint efforts to work out an overall cyber security strategy.


All summits to date have generated valuable synergies between sectors and industries, between the worlds of business and security policy. This year, after going to Silicon Valley in 2016, we chose Tel Aviv as the venue – another international cyber security hot spot with great potential to make cyber space a safer place.


Taking a look back at how the threats to the security and resilience of cyber space have evolved over the years, one cannot help but notice that, despite all efforts, we are on a downward spiral. It started as a playground for hackers experimenting with their technical know-how, then became a haven for outlaws wanting to make money with stolen passwords, identities or intellectual property. Next, waves of massive data collecting and spying practices of global intelligence services shook our trust in cyber space to the core. As the world was becoming more unstable due to international conflicts and disruptions, the threat of cyberterrorism evolved, raising stark fears for the safety of our networked critical infrastructures.


The economic damage that cyber attacks cause is estimated to be around 450 billion euro worldwide – each year. In Europe alone, the annual damage amounts to 200 billion euro.


Last year saw the emergence of yet another hazard in cyber space. During the course of the U.S. election cycle, fears spread among politicians and the public that foreign powers could abuse digital technologies to leak classified information, to tamper with voter registration, to access voting machines, to manipulate the communication of results and thus influence election outcomes. Similar concerns were voiced before the elections in France and Great Britain this year, and will likely accumulate in the weeks before the upcoming Federal elections in Germany.


This is an unprecedented and extremely dangerous development. It could be nothing less than a turning point for democracies in the digital age, as the protection of the right to vote in a free and fair election is quintessential.


So far, we have been largely united against common enemies in cyber space, invisible as they often were.


But the perception that an election was compromised by an outside force with a hostile agenda, and that election results are not what they seem, has the potential to rip the fabric of our societies apart. It could destabilize governments and be a risk to national security. Ultimately, digitally compromised elections can disrupt relationships between states and are thus also a menace to international security and peace.


Consequently, digital election systems must be regarded as critical infrastructure, and an attack upon them must be both prevented and prosecuted on the same level.


To prevent a digital Watergate from happening, digital devices such as smartphones and tablets of campaigners must be protected in the run-up to elections in order to prevent confidential information from being hacked or fake news from being disseminated. Before the federal elections in Germany, Deutsche Telekom is offering political parties app-based support for the security of their devices.


But technical solutions can only be a part of a comprehensive strategy. We need international norms and standards for election cyber security. As "election hacking" is already a global phenomenon – albeit in its infancy – this threat to democracy needs a collective response and a collective effort of defense.


That is why the Cyber Security Summit is so important. Digitally compromised elections are just one facet of the threats in cyberspace. There are many other issues. But they all share both the urgency and the need for close collaboration and exchange. We should think on an intergovernmental level and strive for a legally binding treaty that condemns all kinds of cyber attacks. This is also central to enabling the digitized economy. The time has come for a digital Geneva Convention.


In that spirit, I welcome the chance to provide again, together with the Munich Security Conference, a platform for collaboration.


Tim Höttges is the CEO of Deutsche Telekom AG

27 June 2017, by Tim Höttges