Trump, Putin discuss working together on cyber issues

Trump, Putin discuss working together on cyber issues
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U.S. and Russian officials indicated Friday that the two countries would work together in a number of areas, including cybersecurity.

The officials revealed the effort following the first high-stakes meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit in Germany.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both indicated the countries would focus on cybersecurity, though described potential efforts in different terms.

Lavrov – who attended the meeting with Trump, Putin and Tillerson – told reporters that the U.S. and Russia would launch a "bilateral working group" that included a focus on cybersecurity.

"It was agreed that all of these issues, including anti-terrorism efforts, fight against organized crime and hacker activities in any of their manifestations will be in focus of bilateral Russian-US cooperation. A bilateral working group will be set up for these ends," Lavrov said, according to Russian state news outlet TASS.

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Meanwhile, Tillerson told reporters that leaders planned to put in place "a working-level group" to handle cybersecurity issues.

"The two leaders also acknowledge the challenges of cyber threats and interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries, and agreed to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats," Tillerson said.

Tillerson said the "framework" would deal with "how these tools are used to interfere with the internal affairs of countries, but also how the tools are used to threaten infrastructure, how these tools are used from a terrorism standpoint as well."

While Tillerson's remarks alluded to the joint effort including a focus on government-directed cybersecurity attacks, such as the 2016 U.S. election meddling Russia is accused of carrying out, Lavrov's comments did not appear to reference such an effort.

Tillerson said the operation on the U.S. side would be run out of the State Department and national security adviser's office.

The announcement raised eyebrows of Russia experts worried that Putin may be taking advantage of Trump and that pursuing cooperation before deterrence for recent Russian attacks might send the wrong message. 

"If the Russians want to coordinate with us on cybersecurity it's likely an operation to do intelligence gathering," said Jim Townsend, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO who is currently an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

"Usually when Russians make an offer to the U.S. these days, it's not because they like us."

Instead, said Townsend, the move could be one to harvest the prestige of working with the United States and as a chance to peek at the United State's team of experts and approach to the issue.

It is not likely, he said, a type of task force would accomplish much due to the layers of secrecy both nations would place in front of their envoys and the fact that Russia is viewed by most allied nations to be the perpetrator of many destructive cyberattacks. 

Democrats on Friday raised alarm bells over the U.S. and Russia potentially working together on cyber issues. 

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Democrat: Trump only loyal to the 'pro-Trump' party Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russia's meddling in the election, said establishing a working group with Russia "would be akin to inviting the North Koreans to participate in a commission on nonproliferation."

Schiff said the idea "tacitly adopts the fiction that the Russians are a constructive partner on the subject instead of the worst actor on the world stage."

"This is like giving the alarm code to the guys who just burglarized your home. Just make it easier for them next time," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) similarly tweeted.