State Department Goes on Cyber Offensive


By Dr. Richard Weitz

05/05/2011 – Under Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department has made a major effort to promote international Internet liberties, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly online. Taken together, these rights comprise what Secretary Clinton has called the “freedom to connect.”

The Department faces both foreign and domestic impediments to its policies. The State Department has been divided by vigorous debates over which projects it should support through its grants and whether to view the Internet primarily as a weapon to topple repressive regimes.

The Global Challenge of Cybersecurity (Credit: Bigstock)The Global Challenge of Cybersecurity (Credit: Bigstock)

The State Department is playing a leading role in a global coalition of governments committed to advancing Internet freedom. This commitment was highlighted at the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania in September 2010 and in a cross-regional statement on Internet freedom sponsored by Sweden in the Human Rights Council in June 2010. The Department will issue up to $30 million in grants funding this year to increase open access to the Internet and support digital activists.

In addition, the State Department advances Internet freedom as an economic issue in multilateral forums and in bilateral relationships. In September 2010, Secretary Clinton launched the Women initiative – a public-private partnership led by the Global Women’s Initiative designed to close the global gender gap in mobile phone adoption.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) executes a program to build the security capacity of foreign media and civil society organizations. Last year, the State Department launched Civil Society 2.0 to build the technical capacity of civil society organizations to accomplish their missions through the use of telecommunications technologies. Civil Society 2.0 seeks to match these organizations with technology tools and tech-savvy volunteers to raise digital literacy, strengthen NGOs’ information and communications networks, and amplify the impact of civil society movements.

As part of the Civil Society 2.0 program, the United States, through the State Department, has held several Tech@State meetings and a TechCamp in Santiago, Chile, on topics ranging from mobile money to blogger training to using technology after natural disasters. The Department also partnered to launch the first Apps4Africa competition with local partners in the region, challenging applicants to use digital technology to connect to their communities and develop innovative solutions to shared problems.

The Secretary’s 21st Century Statecraft initiatives complement the Department’s work to advance Internet freedom. They partner private and civic sectors in foreign policy initiatives, thereby bringing new resources and partners together, using connection technologies to pursue more innovative diplomacy. Internet freedom is a prerequisite for allowing technology to build these open platforms for innovation in diplomacy and development.

The Department also promotes international efforts to strengthen global cybersecurity by building capacity in developing countries, promoting interoperable standards, and enhancing international cooperation to respond to cyberthreats.

The Department leads administration efforts to develop an international strategy for cyberspace. The new Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, led by Christopher Painter, formerly senior director for cyber security at the NSC, will integrate work across the Department and with other agencies regarding cybersecurity and other cyber issues.

The new Cyber Coordinator could perform a role based on the precedent of the State Department’s counterterrorism office, where a coordinator forges partnerships with other governments and provides coherence to U.S. international strategies. Unless strongly supported by the Secretary, the Coordinator will find it difficult to lead the Department’s disparate cybersecurity initiatives and act as the primary liaison to the White House Cybersecurity Coordinator.

The Challenge of Managing Cyber-Chaos (Credit: Bigstock)The Challenge of Managing Cyber-Chaos (Credit: Bigstock)

The State Department’s Internet freedom campaign faces two challenges — one internal, the other foreign. The State Department has been divided internally by vigorous debates over which projects it should support through its grants and whether to view the Internet primarily as a weapon to topple repressive regimes.

Domestic critics of the Department’s approach argue that it needs to take a bolder approach and support a few key projects with breakthrough potential rather than disperse funding too widely. A report by the Republican minority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that State’s performance has been so cautious about financing Internet freedom initiatives that another agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, should assume the lead role in this area. The Republican-led House, criticizing the Department for not spending last year’s disbursement of $30 million more quickly, cut the State Department’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget for Internet freedom by one-third, to $20 million.

Critics on the left accuse the State Department of hypocrisy for supporting the free flow of information, except when it involves the secret U.S. cables made public by WikiLeaks. Secretary Clinton has argued that, in addition to being a public space, the internet is also a channel for private communications. To fulfil that function, there must be protection for confidential diplomatic communications online: “The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.”


The Challenge of Building the Cyber Eye to Protect Networks (Credit: Bigstock)
The Challenge of Building the Cyber Eye to Protect Networks (Credit: Bigstock)

The State Department’s support for Internet freedoms is constrained by its responsibility to conduct the overall diplomatic relationship with all foreign governments in a way that maximizes U.S. security and economic interests. When an important U.S. ally or trade partner engages in repressive Internet policies, the Department will at best issue quiet protests. Instead of confronting the government of an important country like China directly, the State Department prefers to place its bet on time and economic incentives to induce these governments to change their polices eventually.


As Clinton put it, “We believe that governments who have erected barriers to internet freedom, whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online, will eventually find themselves boxed in. They will face a dictator’s dilemma and will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing, which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked and people who have been disappeared.”

The Department also balances the need for Internet freedoms with a desire to enhance Internet security. Observers credit the State Department with being the only U.S. government agency that has achieved near-real-time situational awareness by employing what the Department calls “continuous monitoring.” It enables cyber defenders to minimize their vulnerability by quickly protecting their systems when a new threat or vulnerability is discovered. State Department managers update their threat assessments on a daily basis, not monthly or quarterly like most agencies, and can quickly tell when a computer network has not received a needed software patch.

The Department cooperates with other countries to fight transnational cybercrime. It funds the building of cyber capabilities in foreign law enforcement agencies. The Department led the campaign within the U.S. interagency to ratify the Budapest Cybercrime Convention, which sets out the steps countries must take to ensure that the Internet is not misused by criminals and terrorists. When foreigners are suspected of engaging in cyberattacks and cybercrime against the United States, the State Department will lodge protests and try to get those involved punished or at least shut down.

Cyber Crime is Part of the Dark Side of Globalization (Credit: Bigstock)Cyber Crime is Part of the Dark Side of Globalization (Credit: Bigstock)

But the Department can do little when these cyberattackers enjoy the support and sanctuary of foreign governments. Often a foreign government will arrest and visibly punish a few lower-level people, or shut down one malicious website, while allowing other, normally better connected cybercriminals to function unmolested.

The State Department confronts other international obstacles to realizing its Internet goals. Freedom House’s newly released publication, “Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media,” shows how governments have tried diverse and deviously creative tactics to control and repress websites, blogs, and email messages that they consider threatening.

Some of these new Internet restrictions are a reaction against the growing use of sophisticated social networking software applications such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which are now giving ordinary users—including social and political activists—networking tools previously available only to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These social media are being credited with helping organize and galvanize pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Authoritarian regimes face the arduous challenge of maximizing the economic benefits of the Internet while negating its ability to disseminate information outside government control. The Internet has already demonstrated its potential to overcome traditional media controls and provide their domestic opponents with a mechanism to mobilize supporters and propagate anti-regime messages. Many other opposition movements reside in exile and rely on the Internet to remain engaged in their home countries as well as appeal for international support for their cause.

According to Freedom on the Net 2011, repressive governments have reacted to the growing spread of Internet access and user-generated content by blocking and filtering Internet sites associated with political opponents, using legal intimidation to force ISPs to remove threatening content, and arresting users for posting comments or information that the government considers threatening. If necessary, the authorities have employed cyberattacks and misinformation to shape the information landscape in ways unfavorable to human freedoms. Whereas in the past the authorities would provide ISPs with regularly updated blacklists of banned sites, now the use of more sophisticated filtering technology that searches for a rapidly updated list of banned keywords is becoming more common.

The report notes that even in basically democratic countries, state controls can impede Internet freedoms through unwarranted legal harassment, de facto censorship, and government-supported surveillance. The targets of their content controls are often appropriate, such as sites involving child pornography, violating intellectual property, or inciting violence, but all too easily they spill over to disrupt access to legal or legitimate political or social information. Many regulations deviate from international human rights standards, the rule of law, and the principles of necessity and proportionality. All too often, what is censored is arbitrary and unjustified, yet the censorship process offers few effective means of appeal.

The State Department has tried to overcome these foreign challenges through various means. U.S. diplomats have raised cases of imprisoned bloggers, journalists, and online activists at the highest levels of government, and taken a public stand on their behalf. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued more than $5 million in grants in 2010 to support access to information and secure communications on the Internet and mobile devices.

In March 2010, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero and Under Secretary for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats convened the first meeting of information technology companies to discuss ways in which the private sector and government can work together to advance Internet freedom.

On April 20, the State Department announced that the State Department will invest $28 million in grant funding to help Internet activists around the world. Department officials termed the move a major step toward protecting the fundamental rights of activists working in nations that deny or censor access to the Internet and those who use the Internet in their human rights work. Some of these funds will finance programs like circumvention services, which enable users to evade Internet firewalls by routing their traffic through proxy servers in other countries. Other funds will support training for human rights workers on how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating data from mobile phones if they are detained by the police.

Dan Baer, deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, told Bloomberg that software to help pro-democracy activists avoid detection online has developed under the program and has spread rapidly through Iran and Syria. The Department has also already trained more than 5,000 people around the globe to build and use firewall circumvention software through an “underground railroad” type system.

Unfortunately, the available circumvention tools have displayed a limited ability to counter state controls of the Internet, mostly in countries whose people enjoy a high degree of computer literacy or whose governments use relatively unsophisticated blocking techniques. For other nations, their best hope lies in fomenting the kinds of social revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world today—using the Internet when they can, but other means when they must.