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Demand rises for US cybersecurity aid to allies, diplomat says

'More demand for the capability globally than we can right now meet'

Ransomware, a tactic where hackers take over a computer system and demand payment to release it, is also a problem among U.S. allies.
Ransomware, a tactic where hackers take over a computer system and demand payment to release it, is also a problem among U.S. allies. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

U.S. allies and partners are increasingly seeking Washington’s help in defending their own computer networks from foreign cyberattacks, Nathaniel Fick, the top U.S. diplomat on cyber and digital policy, said Wednesday.

“I’m not sure I have been any place in the world where there wasn’t demand for hunt-forward presence,” Fick, the ambassador-at-large heading the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, told reporters at an event hosted by the Project for Media and National Security. “There’s more demand for the capability globally than we can right now meet.”

Hunt-forward presence refers to teams of cybersecurity experts from the Pentagon’s Cyber Command deployed outside the U.S. to defend both U.S. and host nation computer networks from cyberattacks.

The U.S. also is helping small, allied countries with financial assistance to cope with cyber threats, Fick said, referring to $25 million in aid to NATO-member Albania and similar assistance for Costa Rica. Both countries suffered cyberattacks in 2022.

The term “hunting” doesn’t mean offensive cyber operations but defensive moves, said Fick, a former Marine Corps officer and tech entrepreneur who is the first person to lead the State Department’s bureau on cyber policy. “Fundamentally, it’s cyber defense … it’s securing allied and partner networks,” he said, adding that it’s also about helping allies build their own capacity.

The first such U.S. cybersecurity deployment was in the weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, when a team of cyber experts from U.S. Cyber Command were deployed to Macedonia, Ukraine and Montenegro as part of an operation code-named Operation Synthetic Theology. The strategy was outlined in the September 2018 Pentagon cyber strategy.

The cyber team identified Russian agents trying to interfere in 2018 U.S. midterm elections and warned them they are being monitored. The team also temporarily shut down the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, that mounted a large-scale influence operation during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Between 2018 and 2022, the Pentagon’s cyber experts have conducted more than two dozen so-called hunt-forward operations, according to the U.S. Cyber Command. U.S. cyber operators “deployed to sixteen different nations including Ukraine, Estonia, and Lithuania to name a few,” according to the command.

During the Trump administration, top officials, including then National Security Adviser John Bolton, also threatened Russia and China with potential offensive cyber actions if the two adversaries didn’t cease their cyberattacks against the United States. Bolton said in 2019 that the administration was “opening the aperture, broadening the areas we’re prepared to act in.” The goal, he said, was to exact a price on anybody conducting cyber operations against the U.S.

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