US President Barack Obama signed a new executive order on April 1 (2015) designed to strengthen his government's ability to wage war against cyber attackers by way of sanctions. Critics of the move wasted no time in citing the fact that the order was signed on April Fools' Day.
The order gives the US Attorney General, Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury power to impose economic sanctions against those who would launch cyber-attacks in the US. However, the attacks covered by the order would have to threaten America's national security, economic stability or foreign-policy position. Obama has promised that the authority granted by the order will not be used to stifle free speech at home or abroad.
In signing the order, Obama said that cyber-attacks are among the most serious threats to America's economic and national security. The aim is to use the power of the previously-mentioned federal agencies to bring a halt to cyber-attacks by crippling the ability of the attackers to do business. Enforcement of the order would result in attackers being named, their US assets being seized and a ban on their participation in the US economy put in place.
Obama has gone one step further by allowing the sanctions to be applied to commercial operations and governments alike. The Chinese were mentioned specifically, due to their reputation for establishing state-owned companies that profit from trade secrets stolen from their Western counterparts. Obama hopes to shut down such companies by not allowing them to sell goods and services in America.
As with any Executive Order coming out of the White House, plenty of questions abound as to whether or not this order is enforceable in US or international courts. The US Constitution explicitly prohibits unlawful search and seizure of private property among citizens and private businesses, so the government would have to prove its case in court in order to justify seizing assets. However, that may not stop the administration from applying sanctions anyway.
There is also the question of applying the sanctions against an individual data centre that may have been compromised by hackers who use it to launch their attacks. Will the data centre owner be held liable for criminal activity it has no control over?
Lastly, no amount of reassurances from Mr Obama will convince his detractors that there are no plans to use the executive order to stifle free speech. In a day and age where social media has turned the internet into a data communications free-for-all, it is far too easy for governments to keep track of what people are saying and doing. If America's National Security Agency is willing to spy on its citizens by demanding sensitive data from mobile phone companies, what is to stop them from using the new executive order to silence critics? The president need only declare national security concerns to flex his muscles.