In Wake of Cyberattacks, U.S. Readies Sanctions Against China

The U.S. government is purportedly readying economic sanctions against China and is prepared to call out several Chinese companies and individuals for cyber espionage.

The U.S. government is purportedly readying economic sanctions against China and is prepared to call out several Chinese companies and individuals for committing cyber espionage.

It’s not exactly clear when the Obama administration will levy the sanctions, but according to an article from Sunday’s Washington Post which cites several unnamed administration officials, there’s a chance they could come down in the next two weeks.

Details regarding what the sanctions would cover weren’t published, but the Post suggests they will likely come as a response to “cyber-economic espionage initiated by Chinese hackers.” Over the past several years Chinese actors have angled to pilfer nuclear power plant designs, search engine source code, and the “confidential negotiating positions of energy companies,” the paper claims.

With the cybersecurity climate perhaps as volatile as its ever been, the sanctions could come at a prickly time for Chinese-U.S. relations. President Obama is slated to welcome China’s President Xi Jinping to the White House on Sept. 25 for a salute, toast, and State Dinner. And while no one appears certain whether the sanctions will come down while Jinping is in Washington, the fact the Obama administration is even considering them at this juncture speaks volumes about the U.S.’s stance when it comes to combating malicious hacking.

“The possibility of sanctions so close to Xi’s visit indicates how frustrated U.S. officials have become over the persistent cyber plundering,” the article claims.

If imposed, the sanctions would put into action an Executive Order issued earlier this year in which the President claimed the nation was in the throes of a cyber-national emergency. The move granted the ability for the Treasury Secretary and Attorney General to apply sanctions against any actors who were found engaged in “cyber-enabled activities” detrimental to U.S. national security.

While the officials the Post spoke to couldn’t clarify what specific sanctions it would impose, an administrative official the paper cited made it sound like the government would carry through with April’s Executive Order to the fullest extent.

“The administration has taken and continues to introduce steps to protect our networks and our citizens in cyberspace, and we are assessing all of our options to respond to these threats in a manner and timeframe of our choosing,” the official told the Post.

If levied the sanctions would be the U.S. government’s most public statement against Chinese hackers since May 2014 when the Department of Justice indicted five officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for breaking into systems belonging to several American chemical and technology companies. In the indictments, the Obama administration alleged the Chinese military members hacked into companies like U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, and Alcoa and stole sensitive information which they passed onto Chinese companies.

News of the sanctions came a day prior to a new report that foreign spy services in China have been aggregating hacked U.S. computer databases to flush out U.S. intelligence officers and agents.

William Evanina, the National Counterintelligence Executive for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed to Los Angeles Times reporters on Monday that information from the Office of Personnel Management, along with other recent breaches, like Ashley Madison, had “absolutely” been used against U.S. operatives. The report claims Chinese state security officials hired hackers to steal sensitive files, and then forwarded them to Chinese software companies to aggregate the information.

Experts have largely suspected China as the culprit behind the OPM hack since information about the compromise was first divulged in early June. It’s also believed attackers based in China are behind this year’s breach of the healthcare company Anthem, which spilled roughly 80 million records.

While Evanina wouldn’t specify which nations had been scouring leaked databases, the LA Times report cites conversations with other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, who claim China and Russia are behind the spying initiative.

“Digital analysis can reveal ‘who is an intelligence officer, who travels where, when, who’s got financial difficulties, who’s got medical issues, [to] put together a common picture,'” Evanina told the Times.

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