US President Barack Obama has signed a new executive order authorizing economic sanctions against overseas individuals who are believed to have participated in online attacks or espionage.
The order declares the prevalence of foreign-launched internet attacks a "national emergency" and cites the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a 1977 federal law that gives the President authority to take action in the face of "any unusual and extraordinary threat."
Wednesday's order allows the US Treasury Secretary to freeze any assets within the control of the United States belonging to any foreign individual or entity who is thought to have used "cyber" means to disrupt or destroy US infrastructure or obtain trade secrets.
"Malicious cyber activity – whether it be stealing sensitive information, including personal identifiers, or trade secrets – is often profit-motivated," wrote presidential advisor Lisa Monaco in an official blog post. "Because those responsible want to enjoy the ill-gotten proceeds of their activities, sanctions can have a significant impact."
Monaco stressed that the administration would apply the rule sparingly and that sanctions would only be leveled against malicious overseas actors.
"It is not a tool that we will use every day," she said. "Law-abiding companies have absolutely nothing to worry about; for them, it's business as usual. We will never use it to try to silence free expression online or curb Internet freedom. Nor will this authority be used to go after legitimate cybersecurity researchers or innocent victims whose computers are compromised."
The new rule is the second order the President has signed relating to online threats this year. In February he enacted another order instructing federal agencies to maintain a clearing house of information identifying the most serious threats to US network infrastructure.
Neither order goes as far as to mention just who the US is worried about, but China is widely believed to be a major culprit in online attacks on US infrastructure and companies, although it denies the charges.
The Middle Kingdom isn't taking Obama's executive orders sitting down, either. The government has similarly accused the US of conducting espionage against Chinese interests and has proposed its own set of new rules that would govern how US-based tech companies could conduct business in China.
The proposed rules, which Obama has criticized for being too draconian, would require US firms to turn over source code and encryption keys to the Chinese government and make security backdoors available to Chinese authorities before any tech purchases would be authorized.
On Wednesday, the Office of the US Trade Representative, a government agency that recommends trade policy to the President, issued a report suggesting that China's new tech trade rules, in addition to other policies, may violate China's obligations under World Trade Organization agreements. ®