The State Department is building a coalition of allies in cyberspace that it hopes can deter state-backed malicious activity, according to a top diplomat.

Rob Strayer, the deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications at the State Department, told Fifth Domain that the agency is trying to build a voluntary framework of countries that the United States can work with on cyber issues.

The plan is for the alliance to impose consequences after malicious events in cyberspace. Strayer said that although there are norms in cyberspace, they do not enforce themselves.

With the coalition of like-minded states in cyberspace, the State Department can coordinate legal, diplomatic, and attribution with a range of countries. One model is the attribution of the WannaCry and NotPetya cyberattacks, which the U.S. blamed on foreign countries in concert with other nations.

Strayer said the program’s initial seeds were planted after a 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump on cybersecurity.

He did not disclose which countries would be involved or when the digital alliance would be complete.

Experts have suggested that a “proliferation security initiative” could be a model for how to build rules in cyberspace. In general, a proliferation security initiative focuses on outlawing actions and coordinating responses among allies. The initiative was first launched in 2002 and used to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

While the initiative appears to have some similarities with the State Department’s plan, Strayer said there are key differences and said that it cannot be labeled as a proliferation security model.

Still, experts say the proliferation security model could have benefits in cyberspace.

The plan “provides a potentially novel way to encourage collective action without necessitating legally binding commitments or changes to extant laws and norms,” said a January paper from Temple and Columbia Universities.

The authors said the proliferation initiative has also been criticized for being “a tool of U.S. hegemony” and could falter due to countries' varying legal frameworks.

Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.

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