Technology and Security: Briefing
On Monday (23 May), the Security Council will convene a briefing on technology and security, focusing on “The use of digital technologies in maintaining international peace and security”. This is the second signature event of the US Council presidency this month, following the conflict and food security open debate on 19 May. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Global Voices’ Director of the Advox Project Nanjala Nyabola, and McGill University Adjunct Professor Dirk Druet are expected to brief.
The Security Council has become increasingly involved in addressing cybersecurity and the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs). It has also sought to better leverage digital technologies to enhance the UN’s work in the field. To date, the Council has convened formal meetings on cybersecurity on 29 June 2021 and on technology and peacekeeping on 18 August 2021. Moreover, Council members have organised eight Arria-formula meetings—six as open meetings and two in a closed format—on cybersecurity and related topics. Council members also discussed the issue of cyber threats and hybrid warfare in Georgia under “any other business” in a meeting requested by Estonia, the UK and the US on 5 March 2020, after Georgia informed the Council that its government and media websites had been targeted by a large-scale cyber-attack in October 2019.
There have also been Council discussions of cyber and digital threats to international peace and security in the context of sanctions evasion and the exploitation of ICTs for terrorist purposes. In resolution 2129 (2013), the Security Council acknowledged the growing nexus between terrorism and ICTs and the use of such technologies to incite, recruit, fund and plan terrorist acts.
Digital technologies are playing an increasingly critical role in the UN’s work. Digital tools contribute to conflict prevention by improving early warning and early action, facilitate the coordination of humanitarian assistance, support peacekeeping operations and the protection of civilians, expand access to mediation processes, and aid in reconciliation and post-conflict peacebuilding efforts. However, digital technologies can also be misused by states and non-state actors to contribute to instability and exacerbate conflict situations, including through the spread of online disinformation and hate speech.
Monday’s briefing will consider both the benefits of digital technologies and the threats posed by their misuse in conflict situations. At a 3 May press briefing, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that this topic is “a new and important focus for the Security Council” and that “it is long past time for [the Council] to fully grapple with the impact of digital technologies” on international peace and security. According to the concept note prepared by the US, the meeting aims to improve the Council’s understanding of how digital technologies are shaping conflicts and how the UN must adapt its efforts accordingly.
At Monday’s meeting, DiCarlo is expected to highlight how digital technologies have lowered access barriers for groups that have traditionally been excluded from political and mediation processes. She may also note the work of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) Innovation Cell, launched in January 2020 to help field missions understand and explore new technologies, tools and practices in conflict prevention, mediation and peacebuilding.
More broadly, she may refer to the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation, a 29 May 2020 report (A/74/821) offering recommendations to strengthen global digital cooperation. The report notes that “new technologies are too often used for surveillance, repression, censorship and online harassment” and that “greater efforts are needed to develop further guidance on how human rights standards apply in the digital age, including through the Human Rights Council”. In this regard, DiCarlo, and other participants, may commend the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 49/21 on 1 April regarding the “role of states in countering the negative impact of disinformation on the enjoyment and realization of human rights”. The resolution calls on member states to refrain from conducting or sponsoring disinformation campaigns domestically or transnationally and decides that a high-level panel discussion on this topic will be convened during the Human Rights Council’s next session in June.
DiCarlo may also refer to the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, which recommends the convening of a multi-stakeholder digital technology conference to adopt a Global Digital Compact outlining “shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”. According to the report, the Compact could also address ways to bridge the digital divide, avoid fragmentation of the Internet, protect personal data and ensure accountability for online discrimination and misinformation.
While several Council members are expected to echo the Secretary-General’s proposal for broad multi-stakeholder engagement on this topic, some members, including China and Russia, may stress that the onus of Internet governance lies with governments. Multi-stakeholder engagement has been a contentious issue at the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG)—a General Assembly-mandated process responsible for expanding international consensus on the norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and on how international law applies therein. The adoption of the OEWG programme of work has been delayed this year because member states have been unable to agree on the modalities for the participation of stakeholders. It appears that while several member states have been pushing for a systematic, sustained and meaningful participation of non-state actors, others have proposed following the same modalities of the first OEWG, in which preapproved NGOs were invited to official sessions as observers.
As the director of Advox, a project dedicated to protecting online freedom of expression, Nyabola may highlight the importance of an open Internet. In her book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya, Nyabola maps the ways in which different groups in Kenya used Twitter to promote positive and negative politics, and how foreign capital funds campaigns that manipulate information and affect domestic and electoral politics.
Druet is expected to comment on the use of digital technologies for integrated situational awareness and peacekeeping, the subject of a research paper he published in April 2021. The UN has increasingly sought to harness the potential of digital technologies in its field operations. On 15 August 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres released a strategy for the digital transformation of UN peacekeeping, which seeks to help UN peacekeeping missions leverage digital technologies to implement their mandates more effectively and to improve the safety and security of peacekeepers.
Several Council members are expected to refer to the 18 August 2021 presidential statement (S/PRST/2021/17) prepared by India during its Council presidency, which recognised that “technology has the potential to act as a force multiplier by enhancing performance, saving resources, simplifying work processes, and allowing peacekeeping missions to have a deeper understanding of the environments” in which they operate.
Council members are likely to provide country-specific examples of how digital technologies are contributing to peace and security or to instability, exacerbating conflict. Several members are expected to mention how the spread of disinformation is negatively affecting the situation in Ukraine, while others may refer to how digital technologies are providing important information regarding humanitarian corridors and assistance in conflict-afflicted areas of the country. Some members may highlight how disinformation on social media exacerbated tensions and contributed to the conflict in Ethiopia.