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State Department launches cyber office amid concerns over Russia and China’s digital authoritarianism

The move essentially revives a bureaucratic structure, complete with a high-ranking cyber-diplomat, that the Trump administration had removed in an effort to reduce bureaucracy. The new office aims to allocate more diplomatic personnel and expertise to State Department priorities, such as developing standards for responsible government behavior in cyberspace and helping U.S. allies bolster their own security programs. cybersecurity.

“As what is happening in Ukraine and Russia illustrates, we are competing over the rules, infrastructure and standards that will define our digital future,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in prepared remarks outlining the role of the new Cyberspace Office. and digital politics.

“Democracies must collectively answer the question of whether universal rights and democratic values ​​will be at the center of our digital lives – and whether digital technologies bring real benefits to people’s lives,” Blinken said.

Although US diplomats continued to pursue cybersecurity concerns on multiple fronts, critics said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision in 2017 to effectively downgrade the cybersecurity office’s stature within the department signaled to the world the American disinterest in cyberspace.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed a new office of cybersecurity at the end of the Trump administration, but the initiative never took off.

Cybersecurity issues have become more pressing in the years since. The iPhones of a dozen State Department employees stationed in Africa were hacked with spyware developed by Israeli tech company NSO Group, CNN reported in December. The Biden administration has pledged to crack down on the use of such spyware, saying it has been used to violate human rights around the world.

Jennifer Bachus, a career diplomat, will lead the new office on an interim basis until the Biden administration appoints a Senate-confirmed “ambassador at large” to fill the position, according to the State Department.

For at least the first year of its existence, the office will report directly to the Under Secretary of State. “We want to make sure he gets the priority attention of most senior officials in this building,” a State Department spokesperson said in an interview.

Christopher Painter, who was the State Department’s top cyber diplomat until 2017, said reestablishing a top cybersecurity office could give the department more leverage in interagency discussions on high-level cybersecurity issues. level.

“Where we talk about everything from economic tools that the Treasury can use to cyber tools that the DOD [Department of Defense] can use, it’s important to have that diplomatic voice in there,” Painter told CNN.

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