The Trump administration's international trade negotiators are focused on issues ranging from cars to avocados in two sets of talks getting underway, and the tech sector is continuing its push to get specific cybersecurity issues into the mix, both in NAFTA and the reopened U.S.-Korea free trade agreement.
North American Free Trade Agreement talks began Aug. 16 in Washington, D.C., and digital trade issues, perhaps including cyber, were reportedly discussed behind closed doors. Actual negotiating texts exchanged by the parties are not being publicly released, despite a call from some groups to do so at the end of each negotiating round.
A group of tech companies including Tenable, Rapid7, Symantec and and McAfee weighed in with a call for a very specific focus on cybersecurity, calling for harmonizing U.S., Canadian and Mexican cyber policies around the U.S. government's voluntary framework of cybersecurity standards.
It's not clear yet — and may not become clear for some time — whether that idea caught on with the negotiators. It follows a recent proposal by the Information Technology Industry Council to address cyber issues such as privacy standards and regulatory controls in the NAFTA talks.
Meanwhile, the administration announced that negotiations will begin in Seoul on Aug. 22 on revisions to the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, known as KORUS.
An industry-based advisory panel to the executive branch is urging U.S. trade officials to include cybersecurity issues in their objectives for those talks, Inside U.S. Trade was first to report.
President Trump has frequently criticized the KORUS deal, which came into force in 2012, but the advisory panel on Aug. 15 offered a call for unity with Seoul — along with a lengthy list of policy objectives for the renegotiation.
The Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations — a group of senior industry executives chartered to advise the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative — said the administration should "not allow bilateral trade disputes to signal any friction or weakness in our mutual support" in the face of "current provocations" by North Korea.
Although tensions on the Korean peninsula have centered on North Korea's nuclear ambitions and threats, that country is considered by U.S. officials to be a frequent aggressor in cyberspace.
The cyber component of the advisory panel's list was short, but said that South Korea "has imposed on foreign information technology products a series of discriminatory security verification requirements for local testing and for compliance with national technical standards, even when commonly-used international standards are available."
The advisory panel said KORUS "should be modernized to eliminate the use of domestic standards as market access barriers and address other cybersecurity-related issues ranging from safeguarding source code and proprietary algorithms from government access demands to establishing a framework for cybersecurity cooperation."
Along similar lines, the Office of the USTR, under direction from the president, is separately considering an investigation into Chinese government cybersecurity and intellectual property practices that require access to proprietary information about products being sold in that country by U.S. tech companies.
The process of deciding whether to actually open an investigation could take up to a year, leading some observers to believe the White House is buying time as it continues to seek China's help on North Korea.
But it is becoming clear that cybersecurity issues are going to pop up wherever the administration takes its trade policy in the coming months.
Charlie Mitchell is editor of InsideCybersecurity.com, an exclusive service covering cybersecurity policy from Inside Washington Publishers, and author of "Hacked: The Inside Story of America's Struggle to Secure Cyberspace," published by Rowman and Littlefield.