Calling cyber threats “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges to the United States” and declaring a national emergency relating to those threats, on April 1, 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order “Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activity.” 1   The Executive Order is part of the U.S. Government’s effort to combat widespread cyber theft from the networks of public and private organizations.  Former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander previously stated that these widespread cyber thefts “represent the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.” 2

The Executive Order Provides a Broad, Flexible Tool

The Executive Order authorizes sanctions on individuals or entities that are responsible for, complicit in, or engage in malicious cyber-enabled activities originating or directed from abroad.3   The cyber-enabled activities must significantly threaten the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.4   In addition, the cyber-enabled activities must have the purpose or effect of

  • harming or significantly compromising the provision of services by an entity in a critical infrastructure sector;
  • causing significant disruption to the availability of a computer or network of computers (for example, through a denial of service attack);
  • causing significant misappropriation of funds or economic resources, trade secrets, personal identifiers, or financial information for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain;
  • knowingly receiving or using trade secrets misappropriated through cyber-enabled means for commercial or competitive advantage or private financial gain (for example, a corporation that knowingly profits from stolen trade secrets); or
  • materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for any of the above activities.5

The Executive Order sanctions both the “supply side” of cyber thefts—hackers and their sponsors—as well as the “demand side”—the recipients or beneficiaries of stolen information.6

The President issued the Executive Order based primarily on his authority under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq.) and the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. § 1601 et seq.), pursuant to which the President may authorize a variety of regulatory actions to address foreign threats. The Executive Order delegates to the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, the authority to promulgate rules and regulations and to take any other action required to implement the Executive Order.7   Finally, the Executive Order authorizes a visa ban for those targeted by the sanctions.8

What Those Combating Cyber Threats Should Know

The Executive Order is the first to directly address malicious cyber threats without targeting a particular country or group.  Significant issues might arise when implementing the Executive Order, and the resolution of those issues will drive the long-term effectiveness of the new sanctions regime.  Below is our list of the most significant issues.

What will these sanctions entail, and when will they be implemented?

The sanctions authorized by this Executive Order would freeze the assets of individuals and entities specifically named by Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and Secretary of State.9    It is unclear when the Administration will actually use this new authority. Unlike several other sanctions programs, no designations were issued with the Executive Order to sanction any individuals or entities, and as of publication the Administration has not named such parties. According to Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel, the Administration does not have “any particular timeline” for when parties will be named under this program.10

Going forward, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), U.S. Department of Treasury, has the authority to coordinate with other agencies and determine which parties should be targeted under the Executive Order. OFAC will then add any designated entities to its list of Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN List”).11   Under the Executive Order, OFAC also has authority to issue any rules and regulations necessary to implement the program, although it is unclear when OFAC plans to issue such regulations.12   John Smith, Acting Director of OFAC, stated that anyone sanctioned under the Executive Order will be able to challenge their designation through an administrative petition or by filing suit in federal court. 13

Some have already inquired as to how this new authority will relate to other sanctions regimes. In January 2015, after the attack on Sony Pictures, the President issued an Executive Order imposing targeted sanctions on North Korean entities, based in part on the “coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014[.]”14   Mr. Smith clarified that the April 1 Executive Order serves a different purpose. While the North Korea sanctions are jurisdictional and primarily target North Korean government officials, the authority under the new Executive Order is global.  Like current counter-narcotics and counterterrorism sanctions, the new Executive Order will enable the  United States to target illicit foreign activity “wherever it arises.”15

Mr. Smith indicated that while the new sanctions tool is “powerful,” it is intended to be used “judiciously and in extraordinary circumstances.”16   It remains to be seen just what circumstances will motivate the Administration to take that step. While the Administration has not yet sanctioned any parties under the new Executive Order, OFAC has encouraged “firms that facilitate or engage in online commerce” to develop “tailored, risk-based compliance program[s]” as a general practice.17

What activities will trigger the sanctions?

Determining which cyber activities are targeted by the sanctions will be difficult. It is well accepted that malicious cyber activity occurs daily. The Executive Order suggests that the cyber activities to be targeted could be measured in terms of harm to consumer privacy, commercial competitive advantage, or certain sectors, particularly the critical infrastructure sector, but it is unclear what degree will be considered significant. For example, the Executive Order does not describe the size of economic damages or the type of misappropriated trade secrets that would be sufficient  to trigger sanctions. As of yet few guidelines or precedents guide the use of this new authority. Given that the Executive Order intends to create a high bar for the type of malicious cyber activities that are sanctionable, and the sanctions only address malicious activities after they cause harm, practitioners should continue to review their data security policies and ensure they have in place reasonable security measures to protect sensitive information.

Who are the likely targets?

Determining which individuals or entities will be targeted with sanctions will also be difficult. The Executive Order authorizes sanctions on individuals or entities that are “responsible for, complicit in, or have engaged in, directly or indirectly, malicious cyber-enabled activities” that significantly threaten “the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.” This scope appears exceedingly expansive, authorizing sanctions in areas not traditionally thought of as national security, such as the economic competitiveness of private organizations. The Executive Order, however, does not define the key terms although the Administration has indicated that those terms will be broadly defined.  For example, OFAC has hinted at forthcoming definitions, stating that “malicious cyber-enabled activities include deliberate activities accomplished through unauthorized access to a computer system, including by remote access; circumventing one or more protection measures, including by bypassing a firewall; or compromising the security of hardware or software in the supply chain.”18   Moreover, malicious cyber activities are exceptionally difficult to attribute.  Hackers, for example, have rapidly evolving technology arsenals, purposefully obscure their identities, and can leave digital fingerprints anywhere the Internet reaches.

Recognizing these concerns, the Administration stated that it will target only the “worst of the worst,” that sanctions will not “target free speech or interfere[] with the free and open Internet,” are “not designed to police the Internet or stifle technological innovations,” and are “not meant to protect any one individual U.S. company.” 19   In addition,  Mr. Smith stated that the standard of evidence will be a “reasonable basis to believe or reasonable cause to believe,” which is the “basic standard of evidence that administrative agencies across the government use under the Administrative Procedure Act[.]”20   It is unclear how this standard will be applied to evidence attributing malicious cyber-enabled activities to particular actors.