The world is entering a new cyber era — one with no ground rules, and with the potential for traditional espionage to be "turbocharged" by the Internet, President Obama told NPR in an exclusive interview.
"Among the big powers, there has been a traditional understanding of, that everybody is trying to gather intelligence on everybody else," Obama told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday. "It's no secret that Russian intelligence officers, or Chinese, or for that matter Israeli or British or other intelligence agencies, their job is to get insight into the workings of other countries that they're not reading in the newspapers every day."
The informal, unwritten rules of the past are no longer adequate, the president added.
"One of the things that we're going to have to do over the next decade is to ultimately arrive at some rules of what is a new game," he said. "And that is the way in which traditional propaganda and traditional covert influence efforts are being turbocharged by the Internet."
The president suggested the U.S. is more vulnerable than other nations because the American economy is both bigger and more highly digitized than those of other countries.
"This is actually a good example of where, in addition to whatever actions that we take bilaterally against Russia, we've got to spend some time working at an international level to start instituting some norms, the same way we did with things like nuclear weapons," he told NPR.
Nuclear weapons are governed by an elaborate web of international treaties, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Such an infrastructure has yet to emerge for the much newer challenge of cyberweapons.
In a separate interview with NPR this week at the White House, Lisa Monaco, the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, picked up on a similar theme.
Asked which security threats would loom most pressing to her successor, Monaco glanced at the overflowing inboxes lined up on her desk. She works in the warren of National Security Council offices packed into the basement of the West Wing.
"So, the terror threat," she replied. But Monaco suggested that cyber issues will rank a close second.
"We will continue to see a growth in the number and nature of actors — nation-states, nonstate actors, hacktivists, criminals," she said. "And a wide variety of vectors by which they're trying to do us harm. The Internet of things is going to pose grave new challenges for the next team, as the attack surface that cyber actors can operate in is ever-expansive."