Obama Declared Cyberattacks As National Emergency

President Barack Obama has launched a sanctions program to target individuals and groups outside the United States that use cyberattacks to threaten US foreign policy, national security or economic stability.

Obama declared such activities a national emergency and allowed the US Treasury Department to freeze assets and bar other financial transactions of entities engaged in destructive cyberattacks.

Moreover, the executive order gave the administration the same sanctions tools it deploys to address other threats, including crises in the Middle East and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Those tools are now available for a growing epidemic of cyberthreats aimed at US computer networks.

Joel Brenner, who headed US counterintelligence during President George W Bush’s second term said Obama administration is really getting serious now. This order brings to bear the economic might of the United States against people who are robbing us blind and putting us in danger.

The effort to toughen the response to hacking follows indictments of five Chinese military officers and the decision to name and shame North Korea for a high-profile attack on Sony. US lawmakers and security and legal experts have welcomed the move as an encouraging step after a steady stream of cyberattacks aimed at Target, Home Depot and other retailers, as well as military networks.

But they said the executive order was surprisingly broad, which could result in a compliance nightmare for companies, and warned that it remained difficult to definitively attribute hacking attacks and identify those responsible.

The President said in a statement that harming critical infrastructure, misappropriating funds, using trade secrets for competitive advantage and disrupting computer networks would trigger the penalties.

Companies that knowingly use stolen trade secrets to undermine the US economy would also be targeted.

The program was designed as a deterrent and punishment, filling a gap in US cybersecurity efforts where diplomatic or law enforcement means were insufficient, Michael Daniel, Obama’s cybersecurity adviser, said there was no timeline for determining an initial round of targets.

As per the program, cyberattackers or those who conduct commercial espionage in cyberspace can be listed on the official sanctions list of specially designated nationals, a deterrent long sought by the cybercommunity.

John Reed Stark, a former head of Internet enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission, expressed skepticism, citing the high number of state-sponsored cyberattacks and the difficulty of identifying hackers.

The experts said, even denial-of-service attacks that knock websites offline with meaningless traffic, which can be orchestrated over the Internet for a few hundred dollars, could officially qualify for sanctions.

Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said many questions remained about the administration’s overall strategy, and what underlying definitions would be used to govern implementation of sanctions.

It may be mentioned that Obama has moved cybersecurity toward the top of his 2015 agenda after recent breaches. Last month, the Central Intelligence Agency announced a major overhaul aimed in part at sharpening its focus on cyber operations.

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