Sony Hack Attack Prompts White House to Bolster Cyber Weapons

New tool enables government to impose broader sanctions on “threats”

The White House on Tuesday announced it is bolstering the nation’s cyber defenses in the wake of the Sony Pictures attack.

President Obama announced an executive order that will give enforcement officials broader means to target illegal activity that can bring “widespread disruption to our financial structure.”

Administration officials declined to say whether the new weapon would have been used in the Sony attack itself, noting that President Obama had already taken significant enforcement action in that instance, but they said its creation stemmed from some of the discussions initiated by that attack.

“Our experience at looking at proportional response on Sony Pictures informed us and highlighted the need for having this capability,” Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel told a press conference.

Government officials said the new weapon allows the government to impose sanctions more broadly than has been previously possible in situations where more than a single individual is responsible for attacks.

The executive order authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, to impose sanctions on people and companies determined to be responsible or complicit “in malicious cyber-enabled activities that are reasonably likely to result in, or have materially contributed to, a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, economic health or financial stability of the United States.”

The White House said the sanctions could target a variety of harmful activities, including those that threaten “critical infrastructure” services, whether by disrupting computer network traffic, misappropriating funds or financial information for commercial or competitive advantage or financial gain.

It also said the sanctions could be used to target those stealing trade secrets.

How important the tool will be in battling movie piracy was far less clear. White House officials said the tool isn’t designed to protect any single company.

“Our focus will be on the most significant cyber threats we face — namely, on actors whose malicious activities could pose a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, economic health or financial stability of the United States,” Daniel said in a posting on the White House Web site.

At the press conference Daniel said the new tool would be used in instances where a foreign government is complicit or turns a blind eye toward attacks, and those responsible for attacks are difficult to reach.

“It is a tool to impose costs on those actors,” he said.