US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Tuesday of the importance of diplomacy in dealing with cybersecurity and technology matters, noting that “our democratic values and way of life” are “fundamentally what’s at stake here.”
“More than anything else, our task is to put forth and carry out a compelling vision for how to use technology in a way that serves our people, protects our interests, and upholds democracy,” Blinken said at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s Global Emerging Technology Summit.
Blinken specifically dinged China and Russia in his remarks, saying that “it’s not enough to highlight the horrors of techno-authoritarianism – to point to what countries like China and Russia are doing and say that it’s wrong and dangerous, even as it is.”
“We’ve also got to make the positive case for our own approach. And then we’ve got to deliver. That is the challenge before us,” he said.
In his remarks, Blinken laid out the “six pillars to our cyber and tech diplomacy” and also said he has “asked the two deputy secretaries of state, Wendy Sherman and Brian McKeon, to take the lead on delivering recommendations for how to elevate and institutionalize cyber and tech diplomacy across the Department.”
Blinken described the first pillar as “reducing the national security risks posed by malicious cyber activities and emerging technologies.”
“Already, we’ve brought countries together around an approach that recognizes international law, to make it clear that countries are governed in cyberspace just like they are offline; and that clarifies that laws and rules apply not only in wartime but in peacetime too, because we’re now dealing with significant cyber incidents outside the context of war,” he said.
“We’ve also called for practical confidence-building measures. For example, steps as simple as establishing points of contact, so in the event of a major cyber incident, we actually know who to call,” Blinken added.
Blinken referenced the massive SolarWinds attack attributed to Russia, and noted that “NATO reaffirmed that a cyberattack could trigger Article V – ‘an attack on one is an attack on all,’” calling it “an important step too in deterring those attacks and protecting our national security in the cyber age.”
The top US diplomat said they’re “treating ransomware as not only a law enforcement issue, but also a national security issue.”
“Ransomware and other cybercrimes affect all of us – our businesses, local governments, our most critical infrastructure from power grids to hospitals,” he said. “As you know, one in four Americans has been a victim of cybercrime, at a cost of more than four billion dollars a year. This is a direct threat to the safety, to the well-being of our people so it’s at the top of our diplomatic agenda.”
“It’s also why we’re elevating ransomware in our conversations with Russia. Our message is clear: countries that harbor cyber criminals have a responsibility to take action – or we will,” he said.
Last week President Joe Biden said he warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin there would be consequences if Moscow failed to address the ransomware attacks emanating from within its borders.
The Biden administration has increasingly identified ransomware as a threat to national and economic security, highlighting its potential to disrupt critical infrastructure that Americans depend on.
‘The internet is also growing more closed, more insecure, more fractured’
Blinken said the second pillar was “ensuring our leadership in the fierce strategic technology competition that’s now underway,” specifically citing China’s efforts “to become the world’s technology leader.”
The top US diplomat said the “third pillar is defending an open, secure, reliable, and interoperable internet,” noting that “the hard truth is that the internet is also growing more closed, more insecure, more fractured every single day.”
“We see country after country putting up firewalls, controlling speech, targeting activists, shutting down the internet to squelch dissent,” he said.
“And while authoritarian regimes deny access to their networks, they actively reach into others and into ours – taking advantage of and meddling in more open societies. It’s no wonder that some countries are asking whether the principles around which we’ve organized the internet are still relevant or still tenable,” Blinken said, adding that the world is at an “inflection” or even a “tipping point.”
The fourth “is setting technical standards and creating norms for emerging technologies,” Blinken said, and the fifth: “making technology work for democracy.”
“Some of the leading threats to democracies today are playing out, as you all know, in cyberspace,” he said. “We have to be leading the world’s efforts and particularly the world’s democracies in responding to those threats – fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, reducing the misuse of surveillance technology.”
“We’ve got to make sure US companies aren’t inadvertently fueling authoritarian practices, whether it’s in China or anywhere else. That’s why we’ve released surveillance due diligence guidance to help US companies prevent their products from being misused,” he said.
The top US diplomat said the sixth pillar is “promoting cooperation,” noting that “the United States cannot deliver on these pillars on our own – we need partners.”
Blinken said that “in the coming weeks, the State Department will be releasing our first ever data strategy, to help us use data more effectively and more creatively for diplomacy.”
“If Netflix can predict what TV show my wife and I might choose to watch next, I think data can also help us and help the Department predict maybe the next civil conflict, the next famine, the next economic crisis – and how we can respond more effectively,” he quipped.
“I intend to leave my successor at the State Department with strong capabilities in cyber and tech diplomacy, with clear leadership, lines of authority, organizational homes, and talent at every level,” he added.
“We need to become much better at anticipating the foreign policy implications of the next wave of innovation, and the wave after that. I want us to shape the strategic tech landscape, not just react to it,” Blinken said, adding that the Biden administration would weave cyber and technology diplomacy into their work across the board.
CNN’s Brian Fung and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.