CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — On the streets of this Portland suburb where he lives, or on the slopes of Maine’s ski mountains, few people know Nate Fick. Yet the Marine combat veteran and a former business leader now holds one of the more significant jobs in Washington: helping protect America against cyber attacks by criminals and adversary nations.
Fick is the first U.S. Ambassador for Cyberspace and Digital Technology.
“I lead technology diplomacy for the United States,” Fick said, although the job is far more than that. He works with other countries to help fight the criminal groups that use ransomware and other methods to attack digital systems in order to steal money from businesses and governments around the world.
He works with those same allied countries to fight against adversary nations like China, Russia, and North Korea, which are looking to do harm by infiltrating defense, government, industrial, and social networks.
“I have a sense of mission and purpose I haven’t felt since I took off the uniform,” Fick said.
When asked if that purpose was important to him, the reply was simple.
“Turns out it's incredibly important. I didn’t realize or appreciated how important it was to me.”
Fick, who moved to Maine with his wife and children five years ago while leading a cybersecurity business, appears uniquely qualified for the job.
He was commissioner and a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps right after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1999. Two years later, his peacetime service was dramatically changed by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fick said he was doing training in Australia when those attacks happened
“And we watched the 9/11 attacks on a TV behind a bar. It was morning here, evening there, and before the sun came up the next morning we were on board a Navy ship headed for the North Arabian Sea off the coast of Africa."
That began three years of leading Marines in combat in the War on Terror, fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It was a shattering experience early on. I was fortunate in the sense I was physically intact after it all, [and] more or less psychologically intact. I came back to a loving family, and good friends, came back to educational opportunities on the GI Bill, and came back to a job environment I cared about."
Fick published a book in 2005 about his Marine Corps experiences, titled “One Bullet Away.”
After earning master's degrees in business and government from Harvard, Fick worked for a venture capital business and then a cybersecurity software business. He said it was early in this year when the call came from the State Department, asking if he would consider the newly-created ambassador position.
Following a confirmation hearing by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fick was confirmed by the full Senate in October—and started work almost immediately.
“I thought I would get sworn in in Washington in some kind of ceremony,” Fick laughed. “Instead I got sworn in by a notary at the UPS store in South Portland, because we had to get the paperwork going to get a diplomatic passport so I could get on a plane the next day to go to Romania to attend a meeting of the International Telecommunications Unit, the ITU.”
Since that time, he said the work has been roughly half in the Washington office and half meeting with leaders in other countries.
Part of the job involves working to ensure consistent technical standards for digital systems around the world, so those systems can communicate with each other.
“Making sure our 5G networks, our internet cable, all these things are interoperable and secure,” he explained.
But the other part of the job is about battling threats against those systems. He said Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and other countries, as well as criminal groups, are constantly looking to penetrate defense, government, and industrial networks to steal information or create havoc.
Some are simply looking to steal money, as evidenced by the growing number of so-called ransomware attacks. Fick said the attack in 2021 on the Colonial Pipeline was a wake-up call to many Americans that the cyber security problem is real because millions of people suddenly had to worry about gasoline supplies.
Fick said China is trying to steal intellectual property from businesses and governments and also looks to penetrate military systems. He gave the example of a Chinese business called Huawei, which was selling cell phone equipment and other technology to companies in the U.S., where concerns began to be raised because that company has close ties to the Chinese government.
“Some analysts looked at the map of where that Huawei technology was deployed and couldn’t make sense of it until they overlaid it with a map of U.S. military installations. And the technology that was deployed largely bear significant U.S. military installations so that technology allows information on those networks to be shut down, rerouted or eavesdropped on."
Fick said those kinds of attacks are what America is constantly trying to detect and stop.
He also said Russia, in particular, is using cyber attacks to cause dissension in American society.
“I would argue the Russians have been more successful than they could have hoped. Spreading misinformation and disinformation on social platforms to turn groups of Americans against each other. So much we think political speech in the U.S. is, in fact, the very conscious manipulation of our dialogue by a foreign intelligence service. “
Fick said that concern is “completely provable,” and that the government and other institutions in the U.S. need to do a better job of explaining it so the millions using social media understand.
At the same time, the ambassador said Americans need to be more careful about using social media, because there are too many groups looking to influence opinion with false information.
“We are still, in some ways, trusting of a headline or story or fact we encounter in a social media feed. And we would be well-served to be more skeptical, go a layer deeper in understanding what’s going on, fact-check our sources, and rely on trusted media outlets. We are still too easily swayed.”
You can follow Ambassador Fick’s activities on the Bureau’s Twitter page.