Establishing a culture of “fluency and expertise in digital technologies” would be one of the first items on the agenda for the Biden administration’s pick as the first cyberspace ambassador at large for the State Department, Nathaniel Fick said Wednesday at his nomination hearing.
“My hope if confirmed in this role is to is to provide kind of coherence to our tech diplomacy, and ensure that we as a government first, and we, as a leader of like minded allies and partners, are coordinating our efforts because we have a competitor out there with a very different vision of what our global technology future could look like,” Fick told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The State Department announced the creation of the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Diplomacy in April. The ambassador position that comes with it—a recommendation of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission—is a role that will require tight relationships with the Defense Department and could help steer future international cyber policies.
“Because the bureau is new, the first and innermost priority is building the team and establishing a culture both in the bureau and in the department where a fluency and expertise in digital technologies is seen as important to the careers and futures of career Foreign Service officers and members of the civil service,” Fick said. “I can imagine a future where any candidate to be a chief of mission is expected to have an understanding of these issues, because they’re a substrate that cuts across every aspect of our foreign policy.”
Fick, a former Marine, previously led the Center for a New American Security, and was the CEO for Endgame, a cybersecurity software company. He noted Wednesday that the U.S. has not done enough deterrence in cyberspace.
“I believe that we have not fully extended deterrence into the cyber domain,” he said. “Our adversaries seek to do mischief or harm us using digital means because they know what the consequences are in the physical world. And we should be marshaling every ounce of our diplomatic, economic informational, and if necessary, military power to extend deterrence into this new domain.”
If confirmed, Fick said he would “assert the State Department’s rightful place in the interagency process on topics of cybersecurity and digital policy” and on other policy challenges in the world.
“The wolf closest to the door, so to speak, in my view is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the threats and opportunities it provides in the digital space for us,” Fick said. “And then I believe our strategic competition with China, along digital lines, is probably the defining strategic question of my generation.”
The State Department has not had as strong of a role in cyber issues compared to the Defense Department, Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the White House, which now has a national cyber director. Fick said that while he’s sensitive to some lawmakers’ concern of added bureaucracy, the ambassador position aims to change that.
“It is always easy to add, but it’s hard to subtract. And so I come to this role with a heightened sense of concern about the issue that you raise,” Fick said. “And that said, I have a strong conviction that this role actually fills a gap that has existed in our government.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who introduced Fick during the hearing, told reporters Tuesday that the State Department’s cyberspace ambassador role is an integral partnership with the Defense Department, but won’t supplant or take charge of military cyber operations.
“[U.S.] Cyber Command and [the National Security Agency], obviously, our first line of defense in terms of active cyber conflict,” King said. “War is the failure of diplomacy. And we want to start with diplomacy, obviously.”
King said establishing broadly accepted rules of engagement for cyber conflict is key, because cyber “affects virtually every country, because it’s relatively cheap. You don’t have to have huge, huge factories, you don’t have to have a big defense industrial base to be dangerous in cyberspace.”
The senator, who sits on the Senate intelligence and armed services committees, said he expects the ambassador to have a close relationship with Cyber Command and the NSA, to inform the new bureau on issues like threats, allies, and relationships with other countries’ cyber defense establishments.
King was also adamant about the ambassador and bureau pushing for the U.S. to help create universal cyber standards.
“Having the United States active in somewhat obscure international bodies, that sets standards for the internet, for how the internet is supposed to work, what are the protocols, what are the rules of the way it’s established. And we have not been very good at leading those efforts,” King said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., made similar remarks during a panel at the Aspen Security Forum last month, saying the U.S. needs to make more of an effort to be involved in developing tech standards globally, particularly as Chinese tech giant Huawei makes gains in 5G.
“You suddenly see this company emerge, Huawei, in a space where there [has] always been Western leadership,” Warner said during the July 22 panel, naming Motorola and AT&T, and Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung as dominant telecom players in the West. (Samsung was born in South Korea but came to the U.S. market in 1978.)
“And Huawei not only became…the dominant player in 5G, but [what] was almost more frightening to me was the fact that China was also flooding the zone on an area where I think we in America and the West writ large, had always taken for granted: that we would not only create the innovation, but then we would also set the standard rules, protocols, and procedures.”
Warner, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, went on to say that it’s not enough to create world-class technologies—the U.S. must also help craft the standards that coincide with them, because “while they’re techie nerdy, they can also reflect values.”
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