State's school for cyber

Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

Training State Department Foreign Service officers on cybersecurity is expensive, time consuming, and a logistical headache. But the department's top cyber official says that it's a critical investment in overseas work.

The FSOs attending the Washington, D.C., course are tagged as "cyber officers" during the training, and upon completion they'll be the go-to cyber personnel at their foreign posting. That can mean many things, including making sure that State Department cables are tagged properly to avoid prying eyes or knowing enough about policy and cyber norms to interact on cybersecurity issues with the host government. Finally, given that embassy personnel are tempting targets for hackers as well as local spies, the cyber officers key in on basic cyber hygiene.

"It's important for these folks to be able to know how to talk to their governments but also do what people in the field do very well…to engage and also to keep us informed," Christopher Painter, State’s coordinator for cyber issues, told FCW on May 5.

The one-week training attracted 130 FSOs from around the globe. Roughly 60 percent of them were fairly new to the topic and the rest had attended one of the five regional cyber trainings before. This particular session was the first global one,  bringing FSOs from across the world to Washington and including key government agencies and private sector executives.

Bill Wright, director for government affairs at Symantec, briefed attendees on the global threat picture. He applauded the initiative, saying that "most people just don't have a good sense" of cybercrime and cybersecurity. While his audience was tuned into the basic vocabulary of cyber, some were "struck by just how fast cybercrime is growing and the cost to society," he said.

The training included briefings from officials from State, the departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, the FBI and the White House. Participants could select from topics most important to their particular posting, including encryption, countering violent extremism, Internet of Things, digital economy and  global norms in cyberspace.

Painter stressed that cyber presents a "unique opportunity" for career Foreign Service officers to "actually help shape policy."

Martin Libicki, a senior management scientist at RAND who teaches cyber at the U.S. Naval Academy, said a one-week course doesn't necessarily mean that the FSO's are going to absorb everything.  Still, he said, "they have to be able to ... recognize cyber issues and understand the relationship between U.S. policy goals in cyber and the kind of issues they are looking at."

"It's important when you deal with international relations to be able to distinguish between cyber espionage and a cyberattack," Libicki told FCW.

Painter said that cyber issues are increasingly ubiquitous in foreign service work. Almost every summit has some aspect of cyber incorporated in it, he noted.  

"This [issue] is not going away," Painter said. "This is something that is becoming much more an issue of core national security policy, and economic policy and human rights policy."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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