Russia, U.S. Celebrate an Early Christmas

In a fine example of international relations, Russia and the United States exchanged gifts early this year when they announced that the two countries are entering a new level of cooperation on cyber threat analysis and the global war on cyber crime. Reports have it that the event was a festive affair, with borscht and Philly cheese steaks for all. The Russian and American Santa Clauses only got into a tiff once, when Ded Moroz, the Russian version of the jolly old elf, made a comment about his counterpart’s excessive waistline and predilection for butting into the gumbo line for seconds and thirds. The gift exchange was equally revealing, with the American delegation reportedly bursting into tears when memories of a painful childhood were wiped away with carefully wrapped Easy Bake Ovens and Tickle Me Elmos. To make matters worse, since neither side could reach agreement on a real or artificial tree, Denny’s graciously provided a chocolate waterfall – a poor choice in hindsight, since the American delegation is still recovering from the sugar highs.

Who said it isn’t the season to be jolly? Not the U.S. and Russia, who announced this week that the two countries are entering an unprecedented level of cooperation in the war against cyber crime. Reuters is reporting that the countries are planning an exchange of information on “technical threats” coming from the two countries, an interesting development considering the increasing strain on relations between the two nations.

Reuters reports that Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, explained that a series of mechanisms “aimed at confidence building and crisis prevention” are being developed to “cope with alarming events in cyberspace.” While not giving up the entire goose, she is quoted by Reuters as saying in an e-mail that new measures include, “regular exchanges on technical threats that appear to emanate from one another’s territory [and] no-fail communications mechanisms to help prevent crisis escalation and build confidence.” Whose confidence exactly is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps the two nations will unveil that little gem at their New Year’s Eve gala in Vegas.

Admittedly, such partnerships have been in place for a while, such as the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, but Hayden said that new initiatives are, “cyber-specific and [the U.S.] would begin working with Moscow for the first time.” Reuters points out that this development is nothing new, as U.S. Vice President Biden has been discussing potential joint ventures for the last month or so, but in a sound bite that will surely resonate through the ages, Biden stated “It’s a great deal harder to assess another nation’s cyber-capabilities than to count their tanks.”

So, what does it all mean? Well, even ill-informed cyber junkies know that Russia has been a significant source of problems in cyberspace, spam included. Whether this particular initiative will target spamming and scamming initiatives themselves or just the fallout from them – worms, botnets, phishing, and a litany of other unpleasantries – remains to be seen. Some might argue that spamming is a ‘white collar’ crime affecting Joe User and not befitting superpower focus and information sharing, but others would argue that the fallout from spam and its brethren actually rain hellfire down upon national security and international relations. At very least, they keep law enforcement agencies extremely busy and sometimes even left holding the bag. Recent suggestions that Stuxnet was delivered on the back of Conficker certainly leaves a bad taste in many mouths, not the least of which is Russia itself, which in September called out the U.S. and Israel over the insinuations.

From the get-go, this seems problematic, and it doesn’t get any better when one considers the strained relationship between the two nations purported to be partnering in this new initiative. On the heels of Russia’s accusations over Stuxnet, a Stuxnet-like attack occurred for the first time on U.S. soil when a water treatment plant in Illinois was attacked in November, an attack that, curiously, originated in Russia. As Reuters points out, there’s no love lost between the two nations, and in October a U.S. Intelligence report to congress revealed that Russia’s Intelligence services are, “conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. targets.”

Ouch. Sounds like this is going to be one of those Christmases where the in-laws end up tearing down the tree, setting the family dog on fire, and where the neighbors end up calling-in a domestic dispute. Here’s hoping the U.S. included a gift receipt with those matryoshka dolls.

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