The State Department is working with Congress to create a new bureau for cyberspace and digital policy as part of a general push to bring American diplomacy into the 21st century.
“We have a major stake in shaping the digital revolution that’s happening around us and making sure that it serves our people, protects our interests, boosts our competitiveness and upholds our values,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “We want to prevent cyberattacks that put our people, our networks, companies and critical infrastructure at risk.”
Blinken spoke Wednesday at the Foreign Service Institute on a plan to modernize American diplomacy that also includes hiring more workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math, updating the department’s capabilities—including for remote work—and making better use of data, including by sharing more of it with the public.
“There are, as with any good plan, a few pillars, five of them,” Blinken said. “We will build our capacity and expertise in the areas that will be critical to our national security in the years ahead, particularly climate, global health, cybersecurity in emerging technologies, economics, and multilateral diplomacy.”
The new cybersecurity bureau may sound similar to one proposed by the previous administration, as demonstrated by an exchange between State Department spokesperson Ned Price and a reporter after Price referenced it during a press briefing Monday. But there are some important differences, chief among them being collaboration with key lawmakers and related government partners.
The cybersecurity bureau proposed by the State Department under then-Secretary Mike Pompeo—the Cyberspace and Emerging Technologies Bureau—came under fire by the Government Accountability Office for a lack of consultation with related agencies during its development. And members of the non-partisan, Congressionally mandated Cyberspace Solarium Commission criticized the new bureau for going against recommendations in the House-passed Cyber Diplomacy Act that they say would remove silos obstructing a more comprehensive approach necessary in today’s digital landscape.
Blinken’s description of his vision for how to organize the department’s cybersecurity work is more in line with a holistic view and incorporates issues like commerce and human rights, as favored by the lawmakers.
“We want the internet to remain a transformative force for learning, for connection, for economic growth, not a tool of repression. We want to shape the standards that govern new technology, so they ensure quality, protect consumer health and safety, facilitate trade, respect people’s rights. We want to make sure the technology works for democracy, fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, reducing the misuse of surveillance technology. And we want to promote cooperation, advancing this agenda tech by tech, issue by issue with democratic partners by our side,” Blinken said. “All of this is work for American diplomacy.”
Blinken’s proposal is for the new bureau of cyberspace and digital policy to address the fuller suite of issues led by an ambassador at large. He said he will also name a second person, a special envoy, for critical and emerging technology who will reportedly work on diplomatic issues with a new U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council.
“We are in complete alignment with the Biden administration’s approach, which is exactly the kind of move we need to better coordinate cyber diplomacy and set international norms around cybersecurity,” Solarium commissioners Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said Monday in anticipation of the announcement. “In particular, we were pleased to hear that the new bureau will be responsible for overseeing international cybersecurity, digital policy, and digital freedom while matters of critical and emerging technology will be handled by a separate special envoy.”
Blinken’s modernization plan also includes asking for a 50% increase in the department’s information technology budget so State can make better use of emerging technology, including through broader data sharing efforts with the public.
“You need better tools to do your jobs flexibly, efficiently, securely from Washington and from the field,” he said, adding, “The department has vast and diverse datasets. But we haven’t done a good enough job making data available to you in a timely and useful way to help you make missions or management decisions more effectively. We’re changing that.”