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Red Cross eyes digital emblem for cyberspace protection

When Red Cross workers work in conflict zones, their recognizable red-on-white decals indicate that they and those they help should not be targeted.

With warfare and attacks increasingly encroaching on cyberspace, the organization wants to create a digital emblem that would warn would-be attackers that they have entered Red Cross computer systems or medical facilities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Thursday called on countries to support the idea, arguing that such a digital emblem would help protect humanitarian infrastructure from erroneous targeting.

“As societies digitize, cyber operations are becoming a reality of armed conflict,” ICRC Director General Robert Mardini said in a statement.

“The ‘digital emblem’ is a concrete step to protect vital medical infrastructure and the ICRC in the digital world.”

For more than 150 years, the organization’s signature emblems – the red cross and red crescent, and more recently the red crystal – have made clear in times of conflict that the people, facilities and objects they mark are protected under international law. and that attacking these constitute a war crime.

– Potential for abuse? –

But to date, there are no such signals in the cyber world.

The ICRC has been toying with this idea for some time and in 2020 launched a project to explore the technical feasibility of creating a digital emblem and initiated consultations to weigh the benefits of such a system against potential abuses.

Concerns have been raised that such a decal could risk identifying a set of “soft targets” for malicious actors, making it easier to attack them systematically.

Malicious actors can also misuse a digital emblem to falsely identify that their operations have protected status under international law.

But on Thursday, the ICRC presented a new report entitled “Digitalization of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal Emblems,” which concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks.

In the foreword, Mardini emphasized that cyber attacks on medical facilities and humanitarian infrastructure can have dramatic and deadly consequences.

He pointed to a growing number of cyber-attacks on hospitals since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which “have disrupted life-saving treatment for patients and forced doctors and nurses to resort to pen and paper at a time when their urgent work was done.” most needed.”

– ‘Huge shock’ –

And the ICRC itself fell victim to a massive cyberattack last January, in which hackers seized the data of more than half a million extremely vulnerable people, including some fleeing conflicts, detainees and unaccompanied migrants.

That attack “was really a huge shock to our institution,” Balthasar Staehelin, ICRC’s director of digital transformation and data, told a conference in Geneva recently.

While stressing that his organization has long been focused on data protection, Mardini said the “data breach underlined the urgency of our work in this area”.

“Protecting personal data and ensuring the availability and integrity of our data and systems in the digital space is essential to helping and protecting people in the real world,” he added.

In the January case, the ICRC told AFP it had determined it was deliberately targeted “because the attackers created a piece of code designed purely for execution on the targeted ICRC servers.”

A digital decal therefore probably wouldn’t have done much to avert that attack, but in many cases it would provide “an extra layer of protection,” ICRC legal adviser Tilman Rodenhauser said at an event that launched the report Thursday.

It would, he said, “send a signal to professional cyber operators to stay out, by law and by ethical standards.”

ICRC said it has been working with a number of universities and others to develop potential technical solutions for a digital emblem.

It pointed to several possible approaches, including embedding the logo in a domain name (e.g. www.hospital.emblem), or embedding it in the IP address, with a specific string of numbers indicating a protected digital asset.

However, the organization stressed that in order to realize a digital decal, countries must agree on its use and incorporate it into international humanitarian law, in addition to the three physical decals currently in use.

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