The White House has set out plans to use economic sanctions against cyber attackers and companies that benefit from the online theft of secrets.
An executive order signed last week authorizes a set of new sanctions against individuals or groups whose cyber attacks result in significant threats to U.S. national security or economic health.
The executive order gives authorities the power to freeze assets, and also allow sanctions to apply against companies that knowingly use stolen trade secrets.
The wording of the President’s executive order adds a certain degree of urgency, saying “the increasing prevalence and severity of malicious cyber-enabled activities” pose an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the U.S.
“I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with this threat,” said President Barack Obama in the order.
Obama said digital attacks have targeted U.S. businesses to steal trade secrets, and warned hackers in China and Russia have targeted U.S. defense contractors and systems, while Iranian hackers have targeted American banks.
He said it is often hard to pursue attackers either because of weak or poorly-enforced foreign laws, or because some governments are either unwilling or unable to crack down on those responsible.
Obama said the primary focus will be on attackers from outside the US, and while diplomacy and law-enforcement tools will still be the most effective response, “targeted sanctions, used judiciously, will give us a new and powerful way to go after the worst of the worst”.
White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco said there had been a significant increase in the frequency, scale and sophistication of cyber incidents targeting the U.S. in the past year.
“By freezing assets of those subject to sanctions and making it more difficult for them to do business with U.S. entities, we can remove a powerful economic motivation for committing these acts in the first place,” she said.