Opinion: Sanctions may be Obama's best idea yet to battle cyberattacks

April 1, 2015

Jason Healey

The White House announced today a new program of sanctions to combat the worst cyberattacks.

According to a blog by Lisa Monaco, President Obama's adviser for homeland security, the new executive order “authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, to sanction malicious cyber actors whose actions threaten the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.”

Ms. Monaco was clear that sanctions are “not a tool that we will use every day” but just to “deter and disrupt the worst of the cyberthreats that we face.”

The White House move is best seen as the next shoe dropping after last year’s Department of Justice indictment of five Chinese military officers. They were indicted for stealing commercial secrets and with this new order, the president giving authority to target the Chinese companies that paid those officers to spy on their behalf.

It had been a mystery why the Justice Department took a relatively bold step to indict serving military officers on espionage charges, then fail to target the unindicted coconspirators or the Chinese state-owned enterprises that gained the actual commercial advantage. Likely, the administration was distracted by other priorities such as responding to the North Korean attack on Sony Pictures – a response that required China’s cooperation.

Sanctions are a much-needed step to vilify stealing commercial secrets, so that it is seen on par as payment by companies to corrupt officials, something that used to be widespread but is increasingly subject to strong negative norms.

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