The U.S. is considering imposing sanctions against both Chinese and Russia individual hackers and companies for continuous cyber attacks against U.S. government and commercial targets.
The decision is not final yet, as the move would likely further worsen relations with Russia and turn away Chinese President Xi Jinping from visiting Washington in September, several U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Monday.
The Obama administration, having suffered major cyberattacks from foreign hackers, including one on the Pentagon in August, was considering sanctioning Chinese individuals and firms within the next few weeks, as it was earlier reported by The Washington Times. The newspaper also noted that other nations could be targeted.
‘Within a few weeks’ means the sanctions would have been already in place before Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington. It may be planned specifically to coincide with the Chinese president’s visit, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier in August that U.S. President Barack Obama would raise a question about cyberespionage from China during the meeting between the two presidents in the second half of September.
However, U.S. officials believe that while sanctioning Chinese individuals and firms is possible, it is unlikely, as such a move would heat up tensions in the top-level diplomatic meeting.
“The Chinese government staunchly upholds cyber security, firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber attacks in accordance with law,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan issued a statement.
Haiquan added that China wants to engage in a dialogue as well as cooperation with the U.S. government on the issue, as the “groundless speculation, hyping up or accusation is not helpful to solve the problem.”
The Russian Embassy, meanwhile, declined to comment Reuters’ requests.
How could China respond to U.S. sanctions?
Apart from the Pentagon cyberattack, the U.S. government has suffered a number of other no less critical attacks. Earlier this summer, the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was targeted – as it is believed by U.S. officials – by the Chinese to obtain a large quantity of data about U.S. government employees.
The data includes information about U.S. former spies, which would thus put their life in risk in case that information gets into the wrong hands.
However, China has denied any involvement in hacking U.S. government databases, said it was against any forms of cyberespionage and added that it has been a victim of cyber attacks itself.
It must also be noted that the sanctions the Obama administration is currently considering to impose on hackers and firms would not target those suspected of infiltrating into government data, but rather focus on those who believed responsible for cyberattacks on commercial enterprises, one official close to the government said.
If the move is indeed approved by the government, it would be the administration’s first use of an executive order signed by Obama in April to retaliate against hackers accused of infiltrating into U.S. network systems.
However, U.S. officials are not going to name any potential targets, as it would serve as a warning for them to hide evidence.
Sanctions imposed on foreign individual hackers or companies would fence them off from using the U.S. financial system, which would prove itself counter effective for some business relations.
Over 10,000 Russian cyberattacks against U.S. companies
It must be noted that White House national security adviser Susan Rice visited Beijing just last week. And as soon as next weekend, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel is scheduled to visit Beijing for further diplomatic talks before the arrival of Xi Jinping in September. If the talks do not bear fruit, the sanctions are likely to be imposed.
When Obama imposed economic sanctions against the Kremlin last year, Russia began beefing up its cyberattacks against the U.S. government.
Brazen hackers target top levels and most sensitive networks of U.S. computer system, while U.S. officials call it a new way of waging a war.
Such actions also target a number of American companies and involve stealing intellectual property as an attempt to create more favorable conditions for the sanctions-crippled Russian economy.
Cybersecurity firm called Crowdstrike has detected more than 10,000 Russian cyberattacks against American companies. It’s a dramatic increase compared to the same period last year, when the firm detected only a few dozen of cyber infiltrations per month. And ever since the Obama administration imposed the sanctions, Russian hackers have been carrying out cyberattacks in retaliation.
Another cybersecurity firm, FireEye, detected evidence that indicate that Russia has been carrying out campaigns to gather intelligence against the U.S. since 2007, before the ‘reset’ relations between Washington and Moscow.
Russia is more prepared for cyberwar than U.S.
Moscow has been actively looking for correspondence, voice talks, service notes, phone calls and documents that would put dirt on the U.S. or simply leak plans of the Americans into the Internet.
The fact that Russia infiltrates networks of the State Department and the White House to get sensitive data as well as just check Obama’s schedule is seen by many experts as a turning point in the cyberwar campaign of Russian authorities.
Analysts believe that the Russian economy started getting serious injuries due to the U.S. sanctions in 2014, which is why criminal activity in Russia has been intertwined with the government’s activity.
And Moscow is not eager to cover its tracks. It’s probably a way for the Kremlin to show how good they are in waging a cyberwar, as if telling the U.S. ‘don’t mess with our economy, and we won’t mess with your confidential and sensitive information’.