Sep 30, 2022 - Technology

State Department kicks off new cyber diplomacy endeavor

Illustration of a globe on top of a pillar

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The U.S.'s once sleepy cyber diplomacy efforts are getting a jumpstart as a new State Department office gets its leadership.

Driving the news: The country's first cyber ambassador, Nathaniel Fick, started on the job last week after the Senate approved his nomination on Sept. 15.

  • Fick, a former tech executive and entrepreneur, is leading the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, which opened in April, as its ambassador at large.
  • He made his international debut on the job as part of the U.S. delegation at this week's International Telecommunication Union's conference in Bucharest, Romania.

How it works: The Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy is designed to focus on international cyber conflicts and negotiations, as well as promoting internet freedom and open communications.

  • Helping allies build out their cyber capabilities, responding to internet blackouts and weighing in on international 5G deployment standards are each part of the bureau's portfolio.

Why it matters: Countries are increasingly turning to cyberspace to conduct intelligence operations, hack one another's infrastructure and gain control over how information is spread. This creates a growing need for countries to negotiate what activity is and isn't allowed.

  • Without established cyber norms, countries like the U.S. are finding themselves making up the rules for acceptable behavior in cyberspace piece by piece.
  • When the U.S. attributed cyberattacks on the Albanian government to Iran, Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging tech, told Axios the move could help the international community set a precedent for unacceptable state behavior in the absence of norms.

The big picture: Ever since the Trump administration dismantled the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues in 2017, the U.S. has faced scrutiny for lacking a high-profile position dedicated solely to cyber diplomacy.

  • In the meantime, other countries have been leading the charge in establishing tech- and cyber-focused ambassador positions. Denmark even created an ambassador to Silicon Valley.
  • The new State Department bureau builds on the former unit's portfolio, which focused solely on cybersecurity, to include a focus on digital freedom as well as international information and communications policy issues.

What they're saying: "Bringing these three teams together in a single bureau allows us to strongly position the United States on important issues that cut across the foreign policy landscape," a State Department spokesperson tells Axios.

The intrigue: Fick and his office now face the daunting task of proving to international allies — and the cybersecurity and digital rights community — that the U.S. is in these talks for the long haul.

  • Right now, there's nothing stopping a new administration from coming in and dismantling this office.
  • The House has passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act, which would codify the office's existence, but it's still awaiting a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

What's next: Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), one of the lawmakers who first recommended the new office's creation, tells Axios he wants to see the office working toward leading efforts to establish a Geneva Convention for cyber. Such an agreement would lay out acceptable norms for cyber warfare.

  • Experts tell Axios they’re eager to see how Fick builds out his positions on internet freedom after he co-led a think tank report earlier this year boldly claiming that “the era of the global internet is over.”

Sign up for Axios’ cybersecurity newsletter Codebook here.

Go deeper