State Department pursues digital solidarity with like-minded countries

The State Department has released what you might call a diplomacy strategy for the digital world.

The State Department has released what you might call a diplomacy strategy for the digital world. It seeks what officials call digital solidarity with other countries. It even has a four-part action plan. For details, the Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with the Senior Adviser to the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, Adam Segal.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Well, what’s going on here? I mean, don’t we already have solidarity with those nations that we’re going to have it with anyway? I mean, the Western European nations, they’ve got even more stringent privacy and so forth policies than we do.

Adam Segal It’s true. We have a lot of close partners and allies in the digital and cyber space. But even with those allies, we have some differences on how we should govern things like privacy and access to data. And so, the call for digital solidarity is both to try to align interests closer with the people we’re working with. But in some cases, even more importantly, to talk about the types of aid and support that we can provide to other countries that might be on the fence or are not as closely aligned with how the US views to cyberspace should be covered.

Tom Temin Well, give us an example of that type of nation who might be on the fence. I mean, you’re not going to get, you know, Russia to join in this one, but what are some of the nations that are typical of this?

Adam Segal Yeah, I think we’re thinking a lot of the big what we would call the global South. So, you know, Brazil, India, Indonesia, those types of countries that have incredibly large internet digital populations agree with us on some things and disagree with us on others.

Tom Temin But generally where they still elect their leaders more or less than those leaders stay until the end of their terms, that kind of thing.

Adam Segal Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a big part of it. But again, the digital solidarity, we don’t think of it as an alliance or even democracies versus authoritarian states. You know, clearly rights respecting technologies are important and is central to how we think about this. But there are going to be, you know, standards about trust, technology, and other spaces where we think we’re going to be able to work closely with some countries that, you know, politically may be backsliding or not as open as we hope they would be.

Tom Temin And is this something any of them have come to the United States seeking, or are we trying to see if they’ll come to this policy?

Adam Segal I mean, I think it’s early on in digital solidarity, but they have certainly come to us looking for assistance and support across a range of issues the workforce development, cloud and data centers, subsea cable is a whole range of things. And so, we see those as kind of opening the door to building a broader digital solidarity.

Tom Temin And before we get to the details that are in this digital policy, what about Commerce and Defense Department? They all must be aware of this and maybe even had some input. I imagine.

Adam Segal They did. You know, this is the international strategy. And so, the interagency played a large part. And of course, we cooperate closely with commerce around issues like how we deal with digital trade and, data localization and, you know, DoD around a whole range of issues and cyber capacity building as well as, you know, how do we counter malicious actors in this space?

Tom Temin All right. And the digital solidarity policy or strategy, I guess it’s a little of both laid out three basic principles. Maybe review those briefly for us.

Adam Segal The principles. The first one is that this is, we’re offering an affirmative vision. Right. So, we want to describe the benefits and positive things we think come from a rights respecting view of digital space. So, the strategy spends a lot of time talking about the, you know, the countries that you mentioned, Russia and China, North Korea, Iran, and the things that they do in cyberspace that threaten it. But we don’t want this to be just to counter those countries. We want to convince other countries that we actually have a view of what the positive things could be. Second is really baking cyber security into everything that happens. And so especially for developing countries, it’s really important to include cyber security as they build out their networks. You know, not to try to paste it all after it’s all been built. And third, it’s been about ten years since the US issued this type of international strategy publicly. And the last time we did this, you know, it was really focused on internet technologies. And now we are taking a tech stack approach. There’s a whole range of, digital ecosystem that’s really important to the U.S. and U.S. interest. And that goes from, you know, subsea cables all the way up to, satellite telecoms. And so, we’re taking a digital ecosystem approach.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Adam Segal. He’s senior advisor to the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy at the State Department. And then there are four basic actions that state wants to take pursuant to this new solidarity movement. Let’s call it just review those for us.

Adam Segal Yeah. The first one is building a secure, open, interoperable, inclusive digital ecosystems that focuses on some of those technologies I mentioned before 5G subsea cables, data centers. Satellite communications in particular. The second is aligning interests on how we govern digital and data spaces. So, trying to narrow the space between, European partners, trying to push back against some of the regulation that they’re doing, but also focusing on some of the new critical and emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, and in particular, the third is countering malicious behavior in cyberspace. So, looking at how the State Department is developing and supporting, implementation of norms of behavior of the UN, but also attributing attacks and building coalitions. And the third is cyber and digital capacity building. So, helping countries build their own workforces or respond to cyber incidents, and in particular, highlights a new cyber and digital related technology fund that Congress granted the bureau and how we’re going to spend that money.

Tom Temin And that last point, building that capacity physically, I guess in some nations just need infrastructure. That sounds like a job for USAID.

Adam Segal It is. So, USAID, you know, certainly plays a role in that. But also, some of this has to do, for example, lessons learned from Albania, Ukraine and Costa Rica, where we discovered that a lot of these countries need incident response, right? They need help both rebuilding their networks after attacks but also expelling the attacker. So, CDP, FBI, Cyber Command, all of those also play a role there.

Tom Temin And what kinds of resources is state putting into carrying this out? Because you’ve got a diplomatic mission function with all the diplomats and their staffs at the 200 and some places around the world, but is there work or people dedicated to carrying out the strategy beyond the standard work force, doing the day-to-day diplomatic work?

Adam Segal So the Cyber and Digital Bureau is, you know, training to have a cyber, digital officer in every post. That’s the goal by the end of next year, if I remember correctly. And so those people will be on the ground to help implement that and engage with local governments and to respond to their requests and help coordination.

Tom Temin There are those new billets for state and are they funded by Congress?

Adam Segal They’re not new billets. They’re people being trained. And so, we’re expanding the training that is happening for people as a cyber digital officer.

Tom Temin So by the end of this year, a couple of hundred people or more, 250 people maybe will have essentially a new job in place of what they’ve been doing at these different missions.

Adam Segal Yeah, they’re going to be trained as cyber digital officers, and so they’ll be able to engage with the local governments and coordinate digital in cyber policy, you know, on the ground and in their countries.

Tom Temin And there’s a lot they need to know because there’s the technology stack component, the technical knowledge, and also the knowledge of the infrastructure required. I mean, you have to know what’s in a cable and so on, and it gets complicated. But then there’s a lot of policy and cybersecurity doctrine to inculcate. That seems like a tall training order.

Adam Segal It is. But I think it also reflects one of the Secretary’s goals for the modernization of the department is that everybody should have some knowledge of an ability to deal with these issues. I mean, Ambassador Fick likes to point out that, you know, nobody throws their hands up and says, well, you know, I don’t know anything about human rights, or I don’t know anything about China. And so that’s not appropriate for technology either. Right? We shouldn’t be able to say, oh, I just don’t know anything about tech.

Tom Temin Sure.

Adam Segal And so that’s the goal is to provide people, you know, you don’t have to be able to code and you don’t have to be able to, you know, describe to Suki entanglement at a distance for quantum. But you should at least have some, you know, basic knowledge and be able to understand the technological landscape.

Tom Temin And just briefly, what is your background that you bring to this?

Adam Segal I’m a political scientist, actually. I came outside of the department. I was at a at the Council on Foreign Relations, where I was writing primarily about cyber and technology strategy, which I’ve been doing for about 20 years.

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