With Executive Order, Cyber Criminals Join Terrorists, Traffickers on Sanctions List

President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on Wednesday that put cyber crimes on par with others that can result in sanctions against malicious actors and those who support them.
President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on Wednesday that put cyber crimes on par with others that can result in sanctions against malicious actors and those who support them.

In-brief: An Executive Order signed by President Obama on Wednesday will clear the way for cyber criminals to face the same sanctions as terrorist groups, illegal arms dealers and drug traffickers. One expert called the Order “momentous.” 

U.S. President Barack Obama expanded the U.S. Government’s struggle against sophisticated, nation-state backed cyber attacks: dangling the prospect of economic sanctions in response to attacks on U.S. companies and government agencies.

The President signed an Executive Order on Wednesday that authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to impose sanctions on “individuals and entities” that are deemed responsible for or complicit with “malicious cyber-enabled activities” that pose a threat to security or economic health of the U.S., or that interfere in U.S. foreign policy.

“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,” President Obama said in a statement issued on the White House website.

The Executive Order addresses specific types of malicious activity including efforts to compromise critical infrastructure, denial of service attacks designed to “significantly disrupt the availability of a computer or computers,” the misappropriation of funds, trade secrets, personally identifying information or financial information for commercial or competitive advantage or financial gain.

Companies that knowingly receive or use stolen trade secrets or that provide material support for individuals or groups engaged in cyber crimes could find themselves on the receiving end of sanctions, as well.

The problem of cyber crime is widespread and attribution for cyber criminal acts is difficult to obtain. The White House said that sanctions will only be used to go after “the worst of the worst of malicious cyber actors” whose actions.

The goal of the Executive Order is to give the government a new tool in stomping out malicious cyber campaigns and to raise the stakes against companies or countries that enable on condone them. “By sanctioning these actors, we can limit their access to the U.S. financial system and U.S. technology supply and infrastructure. Basically, sanctioning them can harm their ability to both commit these malicious acts and to profit from them,” the White House said in its statement.

U.S. government sanctions may be particularly effective against cyber criminal acts, which are borderless, said  Dmitri Alperovitch, the Chief Technology Officer at the firm CrowdStrike in a blog post.

“Being on this list means that U.S. businesses or persons are prohibited from conducting any business with the blacklisted entity (thus, they are immediately cut off from the entire U.S. financial sector) and travel by the entity to the U.S. is banned,” he wrote.

The effect would be felt globally, as U.S. allied countries also enforce sanctions against individuals on the U.S.’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, he noted.

Alperovitch called the executive action “momentous” because it put cyber criminals in the same category as “terrorists, WMD proliferators and narcotics traffickers.”

“In the not too distant future, cyber criminals, companies that benefit from commercial espionage, and operatives of foreign intelligence services may very well find themselves added to such dubious company,” he wrote.

The Obama Administration has taken a number of steps to sharpen the U.S. government’s response to cyber crimes following years of non-stop campaigns targeting U.S. firms, defense industrial base companies and U.S. government agencies. In 2013, the Administration declared that it will take a “whole government” approach, using diplomatic pressure via the State Department, coordinated, international legal pressure through the Department of Justice and FBI to fight cyber crime.

Incidents of cyber espionage, like the recent hack of The New York Times and other, leading U.S. papers will result in “coordinated and sustained messages from the most senior levels of the Administration,” the Administration said.

Since then, the Administration has taken direct action against individuals it suspects of involvement in attacks on U.S. government agencies or U.S. companies.

In January, for example, the Administration announced sanctions against 10 North Korean nationals and several organizations in connection with state-sponsored hacking by the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK). In May of 2014, the FBI likewise charged five Chinese military officers for their connection to computer hacking and cyber espionage campaigns directed at U.S. firms in the nuclear power, metals and solar products industries.

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