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Here’s Why Microsoft President Wants a Digital Geneva Convention

February 14, 2017, 7:20 PM UTC
Microsoft president Brad Smith
Microsoft's newly appointed president, Brad Smith.
Courtesy: Microsoft

With more countries engaging in cyber attacks against each other, more civilians are being caught in the digital crossfire.

That’s why Microsoft (MSFT) President Brad Smith is calling for a so-called Digital Geneva Convention that he believes can help protect civilians in the same way the original Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949, helped define humanitarian protections in times of war.

Speaking Tuesday at the annual RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco, Smith called on world governments to put aside their differences and pledge that they will not hack civilians, stockpile security vulnerabilities that that they can use to spy and steal user data, and work with businesses to identify security threats when they occur.

Without saying their names, Smith explained that his idea for a Digital Geneva Convention presents an opportunity for the “new president of the United States” (Donald Trump) to “sit across the table” with the president of Russia (Vladimir Putin) to address the challenges of protecting the digital rights of citizens.

“Lets face it, cyberspace is the new battlefield,” Smith told the audience of cyber security professionals as a large screen behind him displayed news articles of some of the biggest hacking stories in recent years related to nation-states. Some of these cyber attacks included the 2014 Sony Pictures hack that U.S. officials linked to North Korea as well as the 2016 hacks on the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign that the U.S. intelligence community has tied to Russia.

Like the original Geneva Convention needed an independent organization—the International Red Cross—to help it follow through on its objectives, Smith wants the technology industry to ban together and act as a buffer that can interject when world leaders carry out massive hacks against their advisories.

“In an age of rising nationalism, we as the global technology sector need to become a trusted and neutral digital Switzerland,” Smith said.

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Technology companies must retain the trust of their customers and must not assist governments with their hacking schemes even though world leaders may request them to do so.

As an example of how technology companies can work together, he cited how Microsoft was impressed with other big tech companies like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) in how they notified their users when their accounts may have been compromised in state-sponsored attacks.

“We adopted what was working for them,” said Smith in reference to Microsoft implementing Google and Facebook’s policies.

It’s not just the privacy and digital rights of citizens that Smith and other technology leaders are concerned about with more governments engaging in more widespread cyber attacks. Every time a government exploits a technology company’s tool or service to spy or hack citizens is a hit on a tech company’s credibility with its customers.

Smith only briefly mentioned last year’s battle between the Justice Department and Apple (AAPL) over a locked iPhone used during the San Bernardino terrorist attacks in 2015. At the 2016 RSA Conference, Smith publicly supported Apple in the consumer tech giant’s refusal to comply with government orders to weaken encryption technologies in the disputed iPhone; government officials claimed doing so could have made it possible for investigators to access sensitive data.

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Microsoft’s president clearly sees more cases like the Apple and DOJ emerging over the years, which could involve governments compelling technology companies to help carry out their initiatives. If more governments routinely engage in cyber attacks, he explained, it’s more likely they are going to call on tech companies for assistance.