The General Assembly has a long history of steering the use of technology for good while curtailing the dangers of its misuse, beginning with its first resolution of 1946, to address challenges raised by the discovery of atomic energy. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the collective vulnerability to disruption and abuse. In one week in April 2020, there were over 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to the disease reported by a single email provider, in addition to more than 240 million COVID-19-related daily spam messages.
Global data breaches have cost countries and companies trillions of dollars, while malware attacks have caused billions of dollars in lasting damage to computer systems necessary for key economic and societal functions. Meanwhile, health-care facilities have been targets of serious cyberattacks during the Covid-19 crisis, with the International Criminal Police Organization reporting a rise in global random attacks. In addition, terrorist groups and violent extremists have exploited the Internet and social media to cause harm in both the digital and physical worlds.
Cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns targeting election infrastructure, political parties and politicians are undermining political participation, as well as the legitimacy of essential institutions. States and non-State actors are rapidly increasing their cyber-capabilities and developing increasingly sophisticated cyber-arsenals. What is even more worrying is that close to half of all countries in the world do not have a Computer Emergency Response team, which would give them the organizational and technological capacity to respond to cyberthreats.
Within the United Nations system, the Group of Governmental of Experts on Advancing Responsible State Behaviour in the Context of International Security and the Open-Ended Working Group on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security seek to advance how international law applies in the use of ICT, norms of responsible State behaviour and related capacity-building efforts and confidence-building measures, as well as the establishment of regular institutional dialogue on the issue. These processes are focused on the use of ICT in the context of international security, working under the auspices of the First Committee of the General Assembly.
During the 22nd Infopoverty World Conference “The Digital Citizen: duties and rights to build a fairer future Society” (rewatch here), data security and availability was a hot-topic. Encompassing many contributions was the idea that data are everywhere, but representing and available only to a small portion of the world. What is thus needed is a Golden Algorithm that can make sense of and harmonize the existing tangled mass of data in the virtual world towards a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable Digital Society where no one is left behind and human rights - in all its forms - are respected, in line with the SDGs and the UN 2030 Agenda.
Recognizing the value of these initiatives and processes, it will be important for the international community to also prioritize broader issues of trust and security to reap the benefits of the digital domain in collective efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. A universal statement, endorsed by Member States, in which elements of common understanding are set out, could help to shape a shared vision for digital cooperation based on core values. The digital technologies that underpin core societal functions, often referred to as critical infrastructure, including supporting access to food, water, housing, energy, health care and transportation, need to be safeguarded.