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A fed-up Obama has declared a “national emergency” for cyberattacks in the US

U.S. President Barack Obama reacts while listening to Nikhil Behari, 14, from Sewickley, Pennsylvania, who is designing a biometric security system for computers to help identify a user by their typing style, as Obama plays host to the 2015 White House Science Fair at the White House in Washington, March 23, 2015.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Looks good, but can we sanction someone with it?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The president of the United States has declared a national emergency due to the threat presented by cyber attacks.

In a new executive order, president Barack Obama empowered the US Treasury secretary to use financial sanctions against foreign actors who threaten critical infrastructure, launch denial-of-service attacks, or seek to steal trade secrets or financial data.

The news comes just days after cyber attacks reportedly originating in China targeted Github, the open-source code repository that has quickly become central to modern software development.  The motive for the attacks is said to be the code hosted on the site that allowed users to bypass China’s digital censorship regime.

The executive order is a significant escalation of the US response to digital threats—January marked the first use of US financial sanctions to respond to a digital threat, when the White House ratcheted up restrictions on North Korea after blaming the regime there for a major attack on Sony Entertainment’s internal network.

Not everyone was convinced that North Korea was the culprit, though US intelligence services say classified sources confirm their judgment. One of the biggest challenges of deploying these sanctions will be identifying the bad actors behind attacks.

But since cyber-attacks are becoming a regular part of geopolitical conflict—whether launched by Russian hackers targeting US financial institutions, Chinese hackers looking for US trade secrets, or US hackers sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program—it’s no surprise that the US is using the threat of financial sanctions as a key deterrent. It’s the president’s signature weapon.

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