The US secretary of state visited Silicon Valley this week, on a trip that experts say highlights the Biden administration’s growing concerns over cybersecurity and officials’ push to collaborate more closely with the US’s powerful tech industry.
Antony Blinken on Monday spoke at Stanford University and was scheduled to meet with tech executives to “highlight the key role for technology diplomacy in advancing US economic and national security”, according to the state department.
The department shared few other details about the visit, and did not respond to a request for comment. But experts said national security concerns including the growing threat of cyberwar and potential foreign interference in upcoming elections were almost certain to be on the agenda.
US administrations have long interfaced with the tech world, but amid the ongoing brutal war in Ukraine, Blinken’s visit comes at “an incredibly tense time internationally”, said Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert and former White House chief information officer.
“Every presidential office since the beginning of the internet has tried to do outreach to Silicon Valley, some more successfully than others” she said. “But the war in Ukraine has created a critical tipping point in the need for collaboration.”
In the last year, Russian hackers have carried out several cyber-attacks on Ukraine, including one in January that temporarily brought down more than 70 government websites. The scope of Moscow’s cyberwarfare against Ukraine and its allies has been smaller than analysts predicted at the onset of the war, but experts have warned that as the conflict wears on, and Russia’s losing streak on the ground continues, the risk of more comprehensive and catastrophic state-directed cyber-attacks grows.
“The state department is likely considering what Putin’s plan B would be, and attempting to get ahead of it by meeting with Silicon Valley,” Payton said. “There are concerns that such an attack could wreak havoc internationally as well as on American businesses.”
In addition to foreign cyber-attacks, the state department is likely attempting to work with Silicon Valley on solutions to ongoing concerns of election interference, said Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at NYU and senior adviser at security solutions firm Kroll. “With midterms approaching, all eyes are on social media platforms – not only for the public, but also from policymakers,” he said.
Those concerns include cyber-attacks that could interfere with the voting process, including the disruption of voter registration lists or the counting of ballots, as well as coordinated disinformation campaigns like the one mounted by Russia during the 2020 presidential election.
Blinken’s trip highlights growing recognition from the government that the private sector plays a crucial role in national security issues, said Glenn Gerstell, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the former general counsel of the National Security Agency.
“In the early days of Silicon Valley, tech operated with relative impunity from government regulations and responsibility,” Gerstell said. But the rise of authoritarian censorship, foreign interference in elections and state-led attacks from countries like Russia and China have underscored the need for more information sharing from the industry, he argued.
“Tech companies have way more eyes and ears on the ground in terms of cyber presence around the world than governments ever will,” Gerstell said. “Both sides need each other.”
Meanwhile, Blinken’s trip comes at a “critical time” for the tech industry as cyber risks rise globally, he added.
A series of high-profile major hacks in the US in recent years has put a more urgent focus on national cybersecurity. From the hack of the Colonial pipeline in 2021 to the more recent disruptive ransomware attack on the country’s second-largest school district, it has become more clear that the US needs to better prioritize preparedness, said Gerstell. This extends to private businesses, as the number of cyber-attacks increased 31% between 2020 and 2021 alone.
“The government needs the private sector, but the private sector has also realized it needs the government to help,” Gerstell said. “The bottom line is both sides need to meet each other.”
Evidencing the Biden administration’s concern over issues like cybersecurity, the state department this year asked for a 50% increase in its IT budget and created a bureau of cyberspace and digital policy, which will work to “encourage responsible state behavior in cyberspace” and “advance policies that protect the integrity and security of the infrastructure of the internet”.
The department also appointed former Marine Corps officer and cyber executive Nathaniel Fick as its first “cyber ambassador”. In testimony during his Senate approval process, Fick stressed the need to partner with other governments and the private sector to “understand how digital technologies can help people exercise their human rights and reach their full potential”.
But the state department outreach also comes at a tense time for tech companies in the US. The tech space has for some time seen growing backlash from the public and regulators in regarding its unchecked power, with the majority of Americans saying such companies should be better regulated. Such skepticism of big tech may extend to government collaborations with the industry, said Tucker.
“Confidence in tech companies is down, and people are going to be more suspicious of everything,” he said. “There is a long tradition in the US of being wary of government having too much power to surveil its citizens.”
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