The State Department on Monday launched a new cybersecurity bureau in an effort to make digital security a part of US foreign policy at a time when authoritarian regimes in Russia and China are increasingly trying to influence the internet.
The move revives a bureaucratic structure that had been dismantled by the Trump administration, which was looking to cut red tape and streamline the diplomatic office. The new bureau will put in place a high-ranking cyber diplomat along with other diplomatic personnel and expertise to focus on addressing cyberthreats, global internet freedom, surveillance risks and to work with US allies to set international norms and standards on emerging technology.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had announced the establishment of the new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy at the State Department in October as part of an effort to reorganize and modernize the agency to meet 21st century needs.
The new agency comes as Russia wages war in Ukraine and experts warn that the war could spur cyberwarfare meant to take out critical infrastructure like electrical grids, banks and communications. Such attacks can cause widespread destruction and are potentially deadly if they close hospitals and nursing homes. While no widespread attack has been waged thus far, the potential exists, experts say.
Meanwhile, the US has long worried about cyberattacks from China. In July, the Biden administration blamed China for the cyberattack on the Microsoft Exchange email server software in early 2021. It said hackers linked to China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities to “compromise tens of thousands of computers and networks worldwide.”
The US government has also adopted policies to limit or ban certain companies with ties to the Russian and Chinese governments from doing business in the US, for fear that the technologies from those companies could be used to spy on Americans or attack US communications networks.
The new bureau is being established more than four years after then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson merged the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues with another State Department office. In the final days of the Trump administration, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to reestablish the Bureau of Cybersecurity and Emerging Technology.
The establishment of a new bureau within the State Department has gotten bipartisan support. Earlier this year, the House passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act, which would establish a cybersecurity bureau at the State Department and ensure it’s led by an official appointed by the president with the level of ambassador.
The State Department said Monday that the new office will include three policy units: international cyberspace security, international information and communications policy, and digital freedom. Eventually, the bureau will be led by a Senate-confirmed ambassador-at-large. Until President Joe Biden appoints and the Senate confirms someone to this position, Jennifer Bachus, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, will serve as principal deputy assistant secretary for the new bureau, starting Monday, the agency announced.