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Obama Approves Targeted Sanctions Against Cyberattackers

Image: President Obama Delivers Remarks On Cyber Security

ARLINGTON, VA - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) on January 13, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama discussed efforts to improve the government's ability to collaborate with industry to combat cyber threats. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images) Kristoffer Tripplaar / Pool via Getty Images

President Barack Obama authorized the first sanctions program directed at individual or group cyberattackers that constitute "significant threats" to the interests of the United States in an executive order issued on Wednesday.

Here's what constitutes a "significant threat" to America, according to the order: A person or group that threatens the United States' security or economy by

  • damaging American critical infrastructure,
  • disrupting or hijacking American computer networks,
  • or stealing the trade secrets of American companies or the personal information of American citizens for profit.

"Our primary focus will be on cyber threats from overseas," Obama wrote in a statement on the website Medium. "In many cases, diplomatic and law enforcement tools will still be our most effective response. But targeted sanctions, used judiciously, will give us a new and powerful way to go after the worst of the worst."

The United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with all countries where those "worst of the worst" may reside or be hiding, Michael Daniel, the president's cybersecurity coordinator, said during a conference call with journalists Wednesday morning.

President Obama speaks out about cyber security 2:28

The new executive order is a "framework" that is "designed to fill in a gap we have identified," Daniel said. Cyberattackers could be "located in places where it’s difficult for our diplomatic .. tools to reach. [Or] a government is complicit in, or turning a blind eye to, the activity that is happening."

So the administration needed a "broader tool" to go after cyberattackers in those countries where they may not be extradited or may even be receiving support from a government, Daniel said.

"We don’t want to just deter those with their fingers on the keyboard, but those who are ... enabling those groups" in any way, including through financial means," Daniel said.

Both Daniel and a Department of the Treasury representative declined to comment on reporters' questions about whether this new order would have been applied to the cyberattackers who carried out a massive hack of Sony's online systems. The Obama administration blamed North Korea for the attack and imposed sanctions on the country in January.

Daniel said it was "difficult to speculate" about whether the terms of the new order would have been used in Sony's case, but he reiterated that "this tool is not designed to protect any one U.S. company ... it's about the country as a whole."