Declaring that cyberattacks endanger national security, President Barack Obama on Wednesday launched a war on foreign hackers engaged in malicious campaigns against U.S. companies or the government.
In the wake of the devastating attacks on Sony Pictures and other American corporations, Obama signed an executive order that allows the Treasury Department to heavily penalize people or countries behind destructive hack attacks and cyberespionage, according to reports.
“Cyberthreats pose one of the most serious economic and national security challenges to the United States, and my administration is pursuing a comprehensive strategy to confront them,” Obama said in a statement posted on Medium.
“As we have seen in recent months, these threats can emanate from a range of sources and target our critical infrastructure, our companies, and our citizens. This executive order offers a targeted tool for countering the most significant cyberthreats that we face.
“Our primary focus will be on cyberthreats from overseas. In many cases, diplomatic and law enforcement tools will still be our most effective response. Targeted sanctions, used judiciously, will give us a new and powerful way to go after the worst of the worst.”
According to The Hill, foreign countries, including Russia, Iran, China and North Korea, have been linked to widespread hacking attacks in both the private and the public sector.
The FBI accused North Korea of organizing an attack on Sony in an unsuccessful bid to prevent the release of “The Interview,” a comedy movie depicting the assassination of the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.
The White House has since hit back by imposing new economic sanctions against the reclusive regime.
Home Depot and Target were hit by hack attacks that compromised the credit card data of 100 million Americans in the last 18 months. Another breach at JPMorgan Chase affected 76 million households’ personal information, according to The Hill.
The president said, “Starting today, we’re giving notice to those who pose significant threats to our security or economy by damaging our critical infrastructure, disrupting or hijacking our computer networks, or stealing the trade secrets of American companies or the personal information of American citizens for profit.
“From now on, we have the power to freeze their assets, make it harder for them to do business with U.S. companies, and limit their ability to profit from their misdeeds.
“These sanctions are meant to protect our national security, personal privacy and civil liberties. As such, sanctions will in no way target the unwitting victims of cyberattacks, like people whose computers are hijacked by botnets.”
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the executive order would allow his department to “financially isolate those who hide in the shadows of the Internet.”
He added, “This authority is a powerful new tool to help protect our security and economy against those who would exploit the free, open, and global nature of the Internet to cause harm.”
The sanctions can be imposed on hackers who receive or use trade secrets acquired through cybercrime when the theft is “reasonably likely to result” in a threat to the nation’s security or economic health, according to The National Journal.
The administration said that the order will cover cyberattacks that “significantly disrupt” the availability of a computer network, including so-called distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), which are employed by “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous and foreign powers such as Iran and China, The Hill said.
Over the weekend, Internet free speech advocates claimed that China had launched a DDoS campaign against the popular U.S. coding site GitHub.
Although Obama’s order limits the authority of the government to impose sanctions relating to certain types of attacks, privacy advocates are concerned that the White House is overreaching its authority.
“This order raises more questions than it answers,” said Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel with the digital rights group Access. “We already have strong rules to address criminal activity while protecting human rights.
“The Obama administration is inventing new authorities to solve these problems rather than using the tools it already has. To further complicate matters, the executive order is incredibly broad, addressing attacks against any entity from nuclear reactors to shopping websites.”