Cyber diplomacy office at State Department would return under House-passed bill

U.S. State Department

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With the passage of the Cyber Diplomacy Act in the House of Representatives, Congress took the first step Wednesday in reestablishing a State Department office that was dedicated to developing global norms for digital espionage and more.

The bipartisan bill, which passed by voice vote, has garnered support from both sides of the aisle. It would codify and expand the capabilities of the Office of the Cybersecurity Coordinator, which was created in 2011 but abolished last year after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to merge it with the department’s larger Bureau of Economic Affairs. Senators have shown interest in the idea of reestablishing the office, but it’s unclear if the House bill will move in that chamber.

Insiders say the shuttering of the cyber office effectively downgraded the State Department’s diplomatic mission for the development of norms for cyberspace — including, for example, debating foreign governments on what should be considered a legitimate target for digital espionage by government-backed hackers.

Tillerson’s decision to fold the office was widely criticized at the time by lawmakers, policy experts and outside security analysts, each of whom said the result would limit the U.S. ability to lead the global conversation. Since then, there’s been some confusion about what role the State Department would play in international relations regarding cybersecurity.

Christopher Painter, who led the office before retiring from government in 2017, celebrated the passage of the Cyber Diplomacy Act on Twitter shortly after the House vote.

In a show of support, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., said in a speech on the House floor that relaunching the office would be important for the U.S. government because all future conflict will likely include a “cyber component.” He pointed to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as one example for such conflict.

“This bill appropriately recognizes the broad scope of cyber diplomacy,” said Langevin. “Every armed conflict going forward in the world today has and all future conflict will have a cyber component … We must engage bilaterally and multilaterally with out international partners and even our adversaries in order to protect our interest and allow us to continue to reap the benefits of a connected society.”

He continued, “The lack of policies, norms and precedences in this new sphere of state interaction continues to increase the potential for a cyber incident to lead to armed conflict. It is up to the hardworking and sadly under appreciated members of our foreign service to change this paradigm and encourage generally a stabilizing rules of the road in cyber space. And this bill will ensure they have the leadership structure to do just that.”

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