US president Barack Obama has signed an executive order establishing a framework for the US to impose sanctions on foreign cyber attackers.
He said the sanctions would apply to those engaged in malicious cyber activity that aims to harm critical infrastructure, damage computer systems and steal trade secrets or sensitive information.
Obama said cyber threats are “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges” facing the US.
To help counter that threat, the order enables the US Treasury in collaboration with the attorney general and secretary of state to sanction “individuals or entities” that pose a cyber threat to national security, foreign policy, economic health, or financial stability of the US.
"Today's executive order allows us to expose and financially isolate those who hide in the shadows of the internet to conduct malicious cyber activities," said US Treasury secretary Jacob Lew.
This will be achieved by seizing the US funds of individuals or groups targeted by the sanctions and banning them from the US financial system.
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But the White House said the new framework will not be used to target free speech on the internet, curtail innovation, or hamper cyber security researchers.
The new measures will not replace traditional diplomatic and law enforcement responses to cyber threats, but will enable the US to take action when threats originate from jurisdictions that have weak cyber security laws or when traditional responses prove to be ineffective.
In May 2014, the US issued criminal indictments against five Chinese military hackers it accused of cyber espionage against US corporations for economic advantage, but they remain out of the reach of the US justice system.
However, some of the companies that benefited from their cyber espionage do business in the global economy and therefore could be hurt by US sanctions, observed the Guardian.
The executive order has been welcomed by global software industry advocacy group, BSA The Software Alliance, which applauded Obama’s commitment to address cyber threats
“The executive order creates important tools to thwart new and emerging cyber threats, especially with the problem of trade secret theft, where the US will now have a tool to deter foreign bad actors who attempt to monetise stolen trade secrets,” said BSA policy director Chris Hopfensperger.
“We look forward to working with the US administration as this important order is used against bad actors,” he added.