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UN debates how to define cybercrime

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cybercrime has shut down governments and has cost companies billions around the globe. But before a larger group of countries can come together to fight back, they have to decide how to define cybercrime itself. That's part of an ongoing debate at the United Nations, as NPR's Jenna McLaughlin reports.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Ambassador Deborah McCarthy just got back from a trip to New York, where a group of diplomats from around the world gathered to discuss a costly worldwide problem.

DEBORAH MCCARTHY: And I'm the lead U.S. negotiator for this U.N. process to negotiate a new cybercrime treaty.

MCLAUGHLIN: A new cybercrime treaty. Basically, McCarthy and her colleagues want to get as many nations as possible together to define the term cybercrime and find ways to work together to track down cybercriminals. It's not the first tool of its kind. There's also the Budapest Convention. But this group is looking for broader international consensus, specifically on digital crimes committed by individuals rather than nations. But there's been a major challenge since they started negotiating in 2019, namely Russia.

MCCARTHY: Russia has, in the most recent round, come back in with major requests to insert language that was not included in the first draft, for it did not have consensus in any way, shape or manner.

MCLAUGHLIN: The diplomats just wrapped up the sixth round of negotiations and Russia is still trying to insist on an extremely broad definition of cybercrime. Here's how Ambassador McCarthy summed it up.

MCCARTHY: Everything that occurs over the internet.

MCLAUGHLIN: So that includes political speech, as well as crimes that predate the internet itself. The U.S. and its allies are trying to define cybercrime more narrowly to avoid policing speech and to keep the focus on purely digital crimes. Russia and China actually led the way in pushing for this new cybercrime treaty back in 2019. But since then, Russia has lost international support, especially because of the war in Ukraine.

MCCARTHY: And we have noted the irony of trying to negotiate a new U.N. instrument instigated by a country that has violated the charter of the United Nations.

MCLAUGHLIN: But beyond that, small and medium-sized countries are really recognizing the importance of getting on the same page about cybercrime. In fact, Vanuatu was a major contributor to the recent discussion, said McCarthy. The tiny island nation was hit by a major cyberattack in November of 2022. There are still major disagreements to work out, but McCarthy hopes the group will come to a consensus at the final session in February.

Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PLESSOW AND MOTOR CITY DRUM ENSEMBLE'S "THE STRANGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.