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What Did Biden Achieve in Geneva?

Even if formal cybersecurity treaties are unworkable, it may still be possible to set limits on certain types of civilian targets, and to negotiate rough rules of the road. Whether US President Joe Biden succeeded in launching such a process at his meeting last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin may become clear soon.

CAMBRIDGE – When US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first summit in Geneva last month, cyber weapons played a larger role on the agenda than the nuclear kind. Clearly the world has changed since the Cold War, but what, if anything, did Biden accomplish?

For more than two decades, Russia has proposed a United Nations cyber treaty. But the United States regarded such a pact as unverifiable. Unlike nuclear weapons, the difference between a cyber weapon and other computer code can depend simply on the programmer’s intent.

Instead of a treaty, Russia, the US, and 13 other states agreed to voluntary norms, outlined by UN-sponsored groups of governmental experts, prohibiting attacks on each other’s civilian infrastructure and not barring wrongful acts staged from their territory. Although these norms were reaffirmed at the UN this past spring, skeptics note that shortly after it agreed to a 2015 report, Russia attacked Ukraine’s power grid and interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

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