The controversial joint United States–Russia cybersecurity unit would focus on hashing out rules for cyber espionage between the countries, not sharing intelligence, according to White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert.
On Sunday, President Trump tweeted he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had "discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded."
The announcement immediately drew the concern of legislators and security experts, who believe Putin's true goal is likely to scout U.S. strategies in cybersecurity and to paper over the Russian hacking and influence scandal during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Around 12 hours after the first tweet, Trump backtracked in a second tweet, saying discussing and announcing the unit could not actually happen. On Monday, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the idea had never been formalized. "Discussions may still take place, but that’s as far as it is right now."
Bossert told reporters on Air Force One on Friday that the unit still might be pursued in the future, but claimed it had never been about developing "impenetrable cybersecurity," as the president had tweeted.
Instead, the unit would discuss the rules for permissible use for both nation's cyber spies. Those rules are often called norms.
"What was broached at that [Group of 20] conversation, as I understand it, was an opportunity to continue a dialogue — one that had in the past existed between the two countries, and I think one that we could pursue in the future with the appropriate reservations and the appropriate expectations, that we at least start with what is acceptable behavior in cyberspace and what norms and expectations that we'll have moving forward," said Bossert.
The Obama administration's primary strategy was to develop agreements of digital norms, a tactic it used to significantly reduce China's use of hacking to steal intellectual property.
In 2015, then-Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryA presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day Equilibrium/Sustainability — Dam failures cap a year of disasters Four environmental fights to watch in 2022 MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that China would halt economic espionage. The cybersecurity firm FireEye, which specialized in part in protecting companies from economic espionage, said in 2016 that Chinese attacks on businesses had dropped as much as 90 percent from just two years earlier.
The norms pursued under the Obama administration included not stealing intellectual property and not attacking critical infrastructure.
Generally, most countries accept that other countries use espionage and conduct their own espionage. But using that espionage to rig markets or harm a person or organization is not considered acceptable.
In the Air Force One briefing, Bossert bristled at calling norms meetings a "partnership."
"[A] partnership suggests that you've reached a place where you believe that you have a trusted relationship and you've come to some common agreement on ideals and goals and behaviors. I don’t believe that the United States and Russia have come to that point yet in cyberspace," he said.
"But we had to have a dialogue, and that's where we'll start," he later added.