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U.N. debates growing threat from 'cyber mercenaries' and hacktivists

South Korea pushed to fight malicious cyber operations like those run by North Korea to fund its weapons program.

Total ransomware payments reached US$1.1 billion in 2023 (AN/FlyD/Unsplash)

The U.N. chief warned a panel of diplomats that "cyber mercenaries" are flourishing amid the growing misuse and weaponization of digital tools.

At a U.N. Security Council debate on Thursday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres observed that "serious cybersecurity incidents are disturbingly common" as digital technologies advance at warp speed.

"The very quality of seamless, instant connectivity that powers the enormous benefits of cyberspace can also leave people, institutions and entire countries deeply vulnerable," he said.

"And the perils of weaponizing digital technologies are growing by the year," he said. "Cyberspace has kicked the doors wide open. Anyone can walk through – and many are."

South Korea, which hosted the debate as this month's president of the 15-nation council, urged nations to tackle “malicious cyber activities” like those run by North Korea to pay for its weapons program.

“The borderless nature of cyberspace exposes all nations to the harms of malicious cyber activities whether digitally advanced or vulnerable," South Korea's Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul said.

He cited a U.N. expert panel's last report in March finding that North Korea's malicious cyberattacks netted US$3 billion in the six years leading to 2023, paying for as much as 40% of its weapons programs.

Russia vetoed a measure to reauthorize the panel, which reported it was investigating 58 suspected North Korean cryptocurrency thefts.

Most members of the council responsible for maintaining international peace and security support greater cybersecurity involvement. Some advocated for conducting investigations under the U.N. Charter's references to handling issues that lead up to or could settle disputes.

Guterres said essential public services are being targeted by criminal organizations, so-called "cyber mercenaries" and "a legion of hate merchants littering the information superhighway with fear and division," pushing total ransomware payments to an estimated US$1.1 billion in 2023.

He also warned that “quantum computing could break down entire systems with its ability to breach encryption.” Experts say the world probably has about a decade to prepare for the advent of quantum computers.

To turn things around in cyberspace, he advised putting prevention and "the rule of law" at the heart of all peace efforts.

"Digital technology offers an incredible opportunity to create a more just, equal, sustainable and peaceful future for all," said Guterres. "But breakthroughs must be oriented towards the good."

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged the council to "work together to address cyberthreats" by non-government and state-sanctioned operations such as those run by North Korea and Russia.

"Cybersecurity enables our most basic systems to function: our economies and democratic institutions – and yes, even the United Nations itself," she said. "We call on this council to ensure cybersecurity is a cross-cutting priority, and one considered in every aspect of our mandate."