The Senate last week unanimously confirmed the State Department’s first ever “cyber ambassador” who will head a new, digitally focused bureau within the department.
Nathaniel Fick was confirmed as ambassador-at-large to oversee the new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.
As The Washington Post explained last month, “Fick will oversee three international policy units that are focused on the security of cyberspace, international communications policy and digital freedom.”
When Fick testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, he made clear he viewed a large part of his job as devising deterrents to prevent foreign, internet-borne attacks on the United States.
“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.”
Frequent readers of The ReidOut Blog know I’ve emphasized digital security and the potential for nefarious actors to harm Americans using everything from in-home smart devices to social media platforms. Part of this emphasis is driven by a personal fascination with the ways tech influences society. Another part is driven by my years reporting for a subsidiary of telecom giant Verizon, the proximity of which gave me insight into some of the world’s most cutting-edge technology, and my obsession with the advantages that technology — like 5G-powered devices — will give to anyone who possesses it.
I’ve been happy to see this conversation taken up more frequently than usual by other outlets in recent weeks. Fick’s confirmation is a sign these discussions will likely factor more heavily into our political dialogue in both the near and distant future.
In the meantime, here are some things I’d like to see him and his new department prioritize.
Inauthentic social media accounts
In a whistleblower complaint filed in July, former Twitter security official Peiter Zatko alleged, among other troubling allegations, Twitter may be understating the number of inauthentic accounts and bots on the platform. This news followed a report from Mother Jones highlighting the ways non-Americans backed by foreign governments (like the Kremlin) have presented themselves as Americans online to sow division. And a new report from The New York Times, revealing Russian-controlled accounts pretended to be Americans in order to suppress participation in the 2017 Women’s March, shows the dangers of social media manipulation are very real. I’d like to see Fick’s office develop ways to combat this.
For years now, top officials in the National Security Agency have sounded the alarm on foreign hackers gaining access to critical systems needed to power U.S. infrastructure. The implications are dire: With that access, people who mean Americans harm could potentially poison water supplies, take fuel systems offline, or meddle with election systems. I look forward to seeing how Fick’s agency collaborates with the NSA and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency to identify these attacks (including any potential similarities in their targets) and how to thwart them.
Americans are in a precarious position when it comes to the ability of foreign governments — and our own — to surveil us. In recent months, I’ve written on the tech-enabled surveillance state currently being established and refined, which will allow law enforcement agencies to snoop on Americans and impose repressive laws (like anti-abortion laws) as they see fit. During his Senate testimony, Fick emphasized the need to “harness these technologies to strengthen democratic governance instead of allowing them to be used for repression.” We should all hold him to that.