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Senate Hears Nomination to Lead Cyberspace, Digital Policy Bureau

If confirmed as ambassador-at-large, Nate Fick will work to promote international norms around good cyber conduct and see the U.S. take a stronger hand in shaping how technologies are developed and used.

Nate Fick speaks during his nomination hearing.
Nate Fick speaks during his nomination hearing.
A recently established federal cyber diplomacy agency could soon get its first official leader.

Senators gathered this morning to consider Nate Fick’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.

The bureau launched in April 2022 as part of the Department of State, and is charged with tackling “national security challenges, economic opportunities, and implications for U.S. values associated with cyberspace, digital technologies and digital policy.”

Fick currently leads Elastic’s information security business. His previous experience includes roles like CEO of cybersecurity software company Endgame, CEO of think tank the Center for a New American Security and infantry and reconnaissance officer in the Marines.

“I cannot imagine a better candidate to fulfill this position,” said Sen. Angus King, I-ME, during the hearing. King previously co-chaired the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which advocated for creating an agency like the bureau.

“We want someone who gets up every morning thinking about the international ramifications of cyber and that's what this office will do,” King said.

If confirmed, Fick would look to infuse cyber and digital policy into the U.S.’ international diplomacy efforts.

“Technology is the next frontier of diplomacy,” Fick said, adding that diplomacy should be the U.S.’ “first resort.”

Fick said he would focus on three goals if confirmed:

  • Promoting norms for good cyber conduct, among nation-states. Fick said he’d aim to “strengthen adherence” to the United Nations’ voluntary framework for responsible state behavior in cyberspace. He also wants to collaborate with allies on penalizing countries that conduct cyber attacks or “willfully harbor cyber criminal organizations.” Deterring nations from enacting or facilitating malicious activity should include “diplomatic, economic, informational and – if necessary – military power,” he said.

  • Promoting a global digital economy in which the U.S. is internationally competitive. Achieving that would involve steps like ensuring data flows “free[ly]” across borders, while also attending to the privacy, confidentiality and integrity of that data, Fick said. He also advocated for preserving the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance, supporting “open, transparent standards,” promoting new technological innovations and securing the global telecommunications ecosystem.

  • Advocating for digital freedom and inclusions. Fick said the U.S. should partner with other governments, private firms and civil society to ensure technologies support human rights and democracy, rather than repression and authoritarianism. He noted that the ways technologies are developed and governed will have lasting impact: “Our future will be shaped by the infrastructure standards, norms and policies that determine how digital technologies are developed, deployed and used.”

Fick’s initial work would start with more immediate considerations, however:

  • Building out his team and establishing a bureau- and State Department-wide culture in which digital expertise is seen as a key component of foreign service officers or civil service members’ skill sets. “I can imagine a future where any candidate to be a chief of mission is expected to have an understanding of these issues, because they're a substrate that cut across every aspect of our foreign policy,” Fick said.

  • To ensure the State Department claims its “rightful place in the interagency process on topics of cybersecurity and digital policy.”
  • Tackling international cyber policy challenges. The most pressing are “threats and opportunities” related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Fick said, while the U.S.’ digital competition with China will likely be “the defining strategic question of my generation.”

TOO MANY CYBER COOKS?


The one line of concern about Fick’s nomination came from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has a record of involvement in cybersecurity policy.

Portman said the role’s authorities and responsibilities appear to overlap with another federal cyber position, creating confusion about accountability. Portman raised similar concerns last year when he questioned the division of responsibilities among different federal cyber roles during a hearing with National Cyber Director Chris Inglis and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly.

“We seem to keep adding more and more top cybersecurity positions to our government,” Portman told Fick today. ”Your position that you are being nominated for is a new one, and I think it overlaps with the Office of the National Cyber Director.”

Fick, said, however, that his position would fill a gap. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and White House already have “strong presence[s]” in cyber matters, and the bureau would see the State Department included.

That inclusion is important to seeing diplomacy become the government’s go-to first approach when dealing with international cyber and technology matters, he said, while adding that he’d also work with other officials to delineate responsibilities.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.