World War III could be fought on Internet, says ITU head

The best way to win it will be to stop it happening, according to Secretary General Hamadoun Touré

Threats of cyberwar and a story of real violence rubbed shoulders at a news conference to mark the opening of the ITU Telecom World exhibition and forum in Geneva on Monday.

"The next world war could begin in cyberspace," warned Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency that organized the event.

The beginnings of such an unconventional war could be out of the control of conventional diplomacy, he said, because in cyberspace "there is no such thing as a superpower: Every citizen is a superpower." With an army of "bots," or compromised computers, at their command, almost anyone could wield great power in a virtual battle, as a number of recent denial-of-service attacks against targets around the world have shown.

"We know from conventional wars that the best way to win is not to start," Touré said.

That's why the ITU is pushing an ambitious worldwide program for cybersecurity and peace.

"By the end of next year, we will broker a global agreement with every country to protect its citizens online, not to harbor cyberterrorists, and not to start an online attack," he said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began by expressing his sorrow at news of an all-too-real attack, the suicide bombing earlier in the day of the Islamabad, Afghanistan, office of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which left several people dead.

Returning to the theme of the conference, he highlighted "a world divided," those with access to information on one side, and those without on the other.

Encouraging the participation of "our youth, drivers of innovation and change," is vital if those divisions are to be eradicated, he said.

Investment in infrastructure and services must be encouraged too in order to eliminate the technology divide -- but the motive should be profit, not charity, Touré said.

"In our strategy of connecting the world, we have no need for charity: It's pure business. If you have the right business plan, you will have investment," he said.

The telecommunications industry will always have investment, because it's a profitable industry, he said.

That's turning out to be the case in Rwanda, said President Paul Kagame, where state infrastructure projects have attracted investment from Chinese network equipment manufacturers.

"The availability of capital for everything is getting more and more scarce, but in our country there is a strong partnership between public and private sectors," he said.

China continues to invest internationally, despite the impact of the global economic crisis and the attraction of the untapped potential of its home market, said Wang Jianzhou, chairman and chief executive officer of China Mobile, also present at the news conference.

"We have still got challenges from the international financial crisis," he said. In the company's home market, revenue from international calls is down 20 percent because of a reduction in tourism and manufacturing exports, he said.

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