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

The move essentially revives a bureaucratic structure, with a high-ranking cyber diplomat, that the Trump administration had nixed in the pursuit of cutting red tape. The new bureau is aimed at putting more diplomatic personnel and expertise toward State Department priorities such as shaping norms of responsible government behavior in cyberspace and helping US allies bolster their own cybersecurity programs.

“As what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia illustrates, we’re in a contest over the rules, infrastructure, and standards that will define our digital future,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in prepared remarks describing the role of the new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.

“Democracies must answer together the question of whether universal rights and democratic values will be at the center of our digital lives — and whether digital technologies deliver real benefits in people’s lives,” Blinken said.

Though US diplomats have continued to pursue cyber issues on a number of fronts, critics said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s 2017 move to effectively downgrade the stature of the cybersecurity office within the department signaled to the world American disinterest in cyberspace.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proposed a new cybersecurity bureau in the waning days of the Trump administration, but the initiative never got off the ground.

Cybersecurity issues have only gotten more pressing in the years since. The iPhones of about a dozen State Department employees serving in Africa were hacked with spyware developed by Israeli technology firm 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 bureau on an interim basis until the Biden administration nominates a Senate-confirmed “ambassador-at-large” to take the job, according to the State Department.

For at least the first year of its existence, the bureau will report directly to the deputy secretary of State. “We want to make sure that it has priority attention from the senior most officials in this building,” a State Department spokesperson said in an interview.

Christopher Painter, who was the top cyber diplomat at the State Department until 2017, said the reinstatement of a top cybersecurity bureau could give the department more clout in interagency discussions about high-profile cyber issues.

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

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