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  4. Secretary Mayorkas’ Remarks at the Summit for Democracy 2023

Secretary Mayorkas’ Remarks at the Summit for Democracy 2023

Release Date: March 30, 2023

Today, Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks at a Summit for Democracy cohost event day session titled “Countering the Misuse of Technology and Rise of Digital Authoritarianism”


Good afternoon. Thank you, Director Haines. It is an honor to be with all of you today.

Our Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines described it so clearly:  our governments, organizations, and citizens face an increasingly complex and dynamic threat environment. 

Technologies have created new opportunities for millions of people around the world to exercise their human rights.

At the same time, digital technologies are increasingly exploited by governments to steal data, spread propaganda, censor content, launch targeted cyberattacks, and surveil, harass, and intimidate people within their countries and beyond their borders. 

Authoritarian regimes are growing more emboldened and empowered through the misuse of increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous digital tools such as commercial spyware and surveillance technology.  The rise of digital authoritarianism – enabled by these tools – threatens the democratic values that lie at the heart of our way of life.  It presents a grave threat to the security of our nations.

Our shared challenges and common adversaries have created a heightened threat environment that requires more of us to work together than ever before.

Democracies must respond together.

President Biden outlined a vision at the first Summit for Democracy, and the world is indeed making progress.

This is a decisive decade.  Democracies are coming together to reinforce that human rights are the bedrock of our national and international security and must be the north star guiding the design, regulation, and use of technologies.  We must ensure that democracies reject harmful uses of technology and stand together as a model for how to harness technology responsibly and ethically.   

To that end, in the United States we are active on a number of fronts to ensure technology advances – and does not infringe upon – democracy and human rights. 

We are changing our policies, deepening our collaboration with democratic partners to accelerate our efforts, and creating new initiatives to protect vulnerable communities here and abroad. It is essential that we set an example that catalyzes others to do the same.

On Monday, President Biden signed a first-of-its kind Executive Order that prohibits the U.S. Government’s operational use of commercial spyware when it poses significant counterintelligence or security risks to the United States, or significant risks of improper use by a foreign government or foreign persons. This Executive Order establishes critical guardrails to  govern the use of spyware technologies that governments have used to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, and activists.

I am proud to note that today the United States issued a joint statement with Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom that recognizes the threat of commercial spyware and marks the beginning of a shared commitment to better regulate its proliferation. We are heartened to have so many international partners join us in adopting a more aggressive stance toward stopping the spread, development, and misuse of tools like commercial spyware and surveillance technology. 

Here in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security plays a central role in the efforts to protect our cybersecurity. Through our cyber defense agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA as it is commonly known, we help governments, businesses, critical infrastructure, and individuals prevent, prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the impacts of cyber-attacks from a range of nation states and transnational criminal organizations. 

We help communities harden their defenses through initiatives like “Shields Up” – launched before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – that galvanized tens of thousands of organizations to increase their cyber resilience.

We must ensure groups that face an increased risk of being targeted by malign cyber actors have greater access to the tools and information they need to harden their defenses and continue their essential work.

Civil society organizations are on the frontlines of the fight for human rights and advancing democracy, and they are increasingly targeted by sophisticated cyber actors and authoritarian regimes.  These groups are also among the most exposed and least resourced to respond to and protect against cyberattacks.

In 2021, an email marketing account used by the U.S. Agency for International Development – USAID – was hacked by a nation-state backed group, resulting in 3,000 accounts at 150 different civil society organizations receiving USAID emails containing malware.  

Thousands of journalists, human rights activists, and dissidents from around the world have been hacked by foreign governments and cyber actors using spyware – much of it developed in and exported from democracies.

We know we must do more to protect vulnerable groups, and through CISA’s newly established High-Risk Community Protection Initiative, we will extend our ongoing cybersecurity work to communities at heightened risk of targeting by sophisticated cyber threat actors. 

In particular, civil society organizations frequently have a lower capacity to provide for their cyber defense.  Through this Initiative, CISA will identify where government support has been low and will work to fill in the gaps.

This will fill a critical gap within the United States and complement the State Department’s existing support to civil society organizations beyond our borders.

We are advancing this work through the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative – or JCDC – which uses a model of partnership that focuses on proactively addressing cyber threats and risks through operational collaboration with partners across sectors. 

One of the JCDC’s planning priorities this year is high-risk community protection.  We are partnering with civil society organizations and technology companies that understand where support is needed most and engage the technology community and our interagency colleagues to develop and implement a joint cyber defense plan that helps strengthen the cyber defense of high-risk communities.

Our efforts to help civil society organizations protect themselves must extend beyond our borders.  With our international partners, we will help create a stronger protection baseline and provide better resources for the civil society organizations wherever they might operate.

To further advance our shared efforts, the United States and the United Kingdom will cohost a strategic dialogue among national cybersecurity centers dedicated to the cybersecurity of civil society organizations. We are pleased to be joined by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Japan, New Zealand, and Norway.

The technology our nations develop, use, and export contribute to our shared prosperity.  But we must ensure that the technology we export and that which we import does not introduce risks of unlawful or arbitrary surveillance of our citizens or of people around the world. 

As Secretary Blinken has highlighted, we have created and agreed to a roadmap for how governments can maintain their commitment to democratic principles and protect human rights in the responsible use of surveillance technology.  The Guiding Principles on Government Use of Surveillance Technologies, negotiated by the United States and 35 fellow member nations of the Freedom Online Coalition and endorsed by eight other Summit for Democracy participant states, outlines how we will protect human rights through responsible use policies like the Executive Order President Biden announced this week.

We are delighted that more than 20 of our international partners have helped develop a Code of Conduct for Export Controls and Human Rights.  Through this code of conduct, we are committing to integrating human rights into our export control regimes to ensure our regulatory and enforcement frameworks to prevent technologies from being exported to those who could use them to violate others’ human rights. 

Democratic nations around the world are making critical choices to meet the moment in this decisive decade.

We know we are strongest when we stand together, and meeting this challenge requires more collaboration than ever before.  Our defense demands a unified response from governments, international partners, the private sector, and our civil society organizations.

It is through our work together – work we incubated at the First Summit for Democracy and have continued in earnest since – that we make the greatest difference in ensuring the protection of democracy and the rights of people around the world. 

There is no more noble work than this.

Thank you very much.  I look forward to our discussion.

Last Updated: 03/30/2023
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