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State Department Touts Digital Diplomacy in New Tech Strategy

The new plan outlines ‘digital solidarity’ to counter threats in cyberspace, including malicious artificial intelligence.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken RSA Conference
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke about the agency's new technology plan May 6, 2024, at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. Photo Credit: State Department

The State Department released Monday its international cyberspace and digital policy plan, the first of its kind at the agency since 2011. The plan calls for securing cyberspace, greater international cooperation and “a comprehensive policy approach” for digital diplomacy and international statecraft.”

“Working together, we can seize this extraordinary inflection point to shape a future that reflects our best values and that advances our interests,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the RSA Conference Monday. “That makes life just a little bit safer, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous and a little bit more full of opportunity.”

The department’s plan outlines countering malevolent online behavior in collaboration with the U.S. government, and its allies and partners. It positions technology diplomacy as critical to economic development, worldwide cybersecurity and innovation that will solve global problems like climate change.

This plan is part of the agency’s “digital solidarity” among likeminded partners, commercial firms and other organizations. During his speech Monday, Blinken framed the issue against the backdrop of the great power competition.

“We’re enhancing our outreach to the private sector, to academia, to civil society, to all of you. We need your partnership to sharpen our thinking, to inform our diplomacy, to help us see around the corners, to prepare for the innovations to come, even to tell us what we’re missing and where we need to do better,” he said.

The State plan augments the White House’s cybersecurity strategy and AI executive order in calling for establishing “a process to develop new standards for AI safety and security and seeks to protect citizens’ privacy, promote innovation and competition, and advance equity and human rights.” The White House’s AI executive order had tasked State with establishing a playbook to harness AI’s benefits while managing its risks.

“To write the rules of the road, the United States must compete across the globe in the technologies that will shape our digital and physical experience, and, by extension, our geopolitical realities,” Blinken said.

Supply Chains and Adversaries

Concerns about China as a global technology leader and a cyber adversary color the plan’s emphasis on diversifying supply chains, information sharing and countering misinformation.

State’s plan includes diversifying secure supply chains for chips and other critical technology components. By working with allies and partners, Blinken noted, a more resilient supply chain will both counter threats and build cooperation.

“The world’s tech manufacturing infrastructure is dangerously concentrated in a few narrow geographic areas — and in the event of military conflicts, natural disaster, those supply chains could be cut off,” Blinken said. “To lessen that risk, the United States is forging tech partnerships that will make critical technology supply chains more resilient, more diverse, more secure.“

Chinese manufacturing remains a concern for tech officials throughout the public and private sectors. Analyst Jack Corrigan from Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology spoke to CyberCast in February about the cybersecurity concerns related to procuring Chinese-manufactured information and communications technology and services.

“Under a 2017 national security law, basically, Chinese companies are legally compelled to assist with with the government’s intelligence activities,” Corrigan said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. disrupted Volt Typhoon, a massive Chinese-connected cyber operation targeting U.S. critical infrastructure. The plan cites the threat as the “broadest” in cyberspace.

“Beijing has mounted cyber espionage operations against government, commercial and civil society actors, and has increased its ability to carry out destructive and disruptive cyberattacks,” the plan reads. “[China] is capable of launching cyberattacks that could disrupt oil and gas pipelines, rail systems and other critical infrastructure services within the United States or its allies and partners.”

The plan also echoes the Defense Department’s 2023 cyber strategy, which identifies other malicious actors like Russia, North Korea and Iran, and also the White House’s National Security Memorandum (NSM)-22 on Critical Infrastructure. DOD said it is developing a sector-wide risk management program, according a DOD statement released Tuesday.

“We’re working with partners to set cyber norms, and we’re working to uphold them around the world, as we did by publicly calling out [China] for targeting U.S. critical infrastructure and by holding Iran directly accountable for its cyber attacks against Albania,” Blinken said Monday.

Blinken cited the Russia-Ukraine war as an example of allies and industry partners working together to counter Russia’s cyber aggression since it invaded Ukraine in 2022.

“We helped [Ukraine] harden their networks, migrate vital government data to the cloud, bolster the resilience of national communications and other critical infrastructure. That is digital solidarity in action, and it’s the kind of collaboration that we want to scale and apply around the world,” Blinken said.

Staying Ahead of Emerging Technology

Blinken echoed the plan’s call for American leadership in emerging technologies like AI and quantum computing, citing innovation in wireless capabilities over the years.

“We’ve learned from the 5G experience that we cannot be complacent and let strategic competitors dominate the technologies that form the backbone of the global economy and that determine how and where information flows,” Blinken said. “We’re unleashing our diplomatic arsenal to help innovative companies from the United States and our partners fairly compete for opportunities up and down the stack that will help preserve and expand a secure and open a resilient tech world.”

Noting that the U.S. adopted the first AI-related resolution at the United Nations, Blinken added, “we’ve got to apply the same playbook to other technologies.”

The plan warns AI used in disinformation requires responsible standards for its development and use.

“The threat of misinformation and malicious AI information integrity challenges are not new, but determined foreign state adversaries and rapid technological advances, especially AI-enabled human-machine interactions, create complex dynamics that compound information risks by enabling rapid, large-scale and targeted dissemination of AI-enabled synthetic content,” according to the document.

Blinken said that partnerships, collaboration and diplomacy will aid worldwide security while helping the U.S. secure cyberspace.

“It’s a national security imperative that these technologies not aid or accelerate the military modernization of countries that seek to challenge the United States,” Blinken said. “We’re not doing this alone. We’re working collaboratively with partners to ensure that these efforts are carried out consistently and more effectively around the world.”

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