Christopher Painter, the State Department’s “Coordinator for Cyber Issues” stepped down on July 28, 2017. Described as the Department’s “weary soldier in America’s cyber war,” Painter traveled the globe advancing U.S. interests in cyberspace. His efforts included coordinating diplomacy in cyber security matters and launching “cyber dialogues” with foreign powers. The aim of those dialogues: reducing cyber threats ranging from D-DOS attacks to the theft of intellectual property.
Perhaps his most ambitious project had been working toward the development of an international legal framework for cyberspace—a set of cyber norms that nations would adhere to, such as not knowingly providing support to hackers targeting a foreign nation’s critical infrastructure. “There’s general agreement even among our ‘frenemies’ that international law applies . . . . We’ve gotten a lot of speed in moving toward this framework. We still have more to do. We need to get more countries to sign up,” Painter said at the 2017 Akamai Government Forum.
Painter’s resignation throws these initiatives and others into uncertainty. For example, the President’s recent cyber executive order requests a report from the State Department on international cyber priorities—a task that would certainly benefit from the input of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues. However, it is unclear whether the Department will fill the position Painter left vacant. There have been reports that the Department will merge the cyber security office into its Economic Bureau.
As Painter leaves, the fact remains—cyber attacks are among the nation’s most pressing security threats. Indeed, after the mid-July announcement of his plans to resign, Painter tweeted this passage by author Thomas Pynchon and apparently modified by a “certain” former Estonian President: “A screaming comes across the sky—It’s the Internet.”