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US State Department to form cyber bureau

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The US State Department plans to establish a bureau responsible for cyber security and digital policy in the face of mounting cyber attacks on important national infrastructure, spokesperson Ned Price said.

Hackers, often backed by other nation states and their resources, have repeatedly struck US companies this year, with particular concerns about a surge of ransomware attacks. In May, a ransomware attack targeting pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to a temporary disruption to the fuel supply on the East Coast.

This month, the US Treasury Department said that suspected ransomware payments amounting to $590m had been made in the first half of 2021.

A Wall Street Journal report said the new bureau would have three divisions. The first will be focused on international cyber-security issues such as policy development, deterrence and negotiations with allies and adversaries. The second will be focused on digital policy, such as supporting the development of secure telecommunications infrastructure abroad. The third division will be focused on global digital freedom, such as defending human rights online.

Price said the new bureau will be led by an ambassador at large, to be confirmed by the Senate. He added that the department would also establish a new special envoy for critical and emerging technologies (specifically AI, quantum computing and biotechnology) to “lead the immediate technology diplomacy agenda”. This will involve engaging with bodies such as the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. Both as-yet unappointed officials will report directly to Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state.

The changes are expected to be formally announced by secretary of state Antony Blinken later this week. According to a senior State Department official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the new structure reflects Blinken’s view that the US has entered a “fundamentally new era in global affairs” in which emerging technologies and climate change impacts are at the forefront of international tensions.

The establishment of the new bureau indicates the Biden administration’s continued commitment to treating the growth in cyber threats as an important national security issue.

On entering office, Biden appointed Anne Neuberger, a senior National Security Agency official, to the new role of deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology, along with her former colleague Chris Inglis to the new role of national cyber director. Since then, the Biden administration has formed a ransomware taskforce and a cryptocurrency enforcement team to provide specialist expertise regarding cyber threats.

The Biden administration has also sought bilateral discussions with Kremlin counterparts on escalating ransomware attacks by Russian gangs, albeit with limited success.

Earlier this week, Microsoft said state-backed hackers behind last year’s SolarWinds attack have continued to target and penetrate cloud service providers to extract sensitive data in recent months.

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