US & Canada

President Obama creates new cyber sanctions programme

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US President Barack Obama has ordered the creation of a programme that would allow the government to sanction foreign hackers.

The US Treasury will now be able to target those attempting cyber attacks on US assets and infrastructure.

Mr Obama said cyber-threats are "one of the most serious economic and national security challenges" that the US faces.

The White House did not announce any new sanctions, only the authority to impose them when it deems necessary.

In January, the US imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to a cyber-attack against Sony Pictures.

The new programme is the product of an executive order issued by the president on Wednesday.

The authorisation gives the US Treasury Secretary - in coordination with the Attorney General and Secretary of State - the ability to sanction "individuals or entities" that pose a cyber threat to the "national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States," Mr Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.

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Image caption A masked hacker, part of the Anonymous group, hacks the French presidential Elysee Palace website in 2012.

Mr Obama created the new authorisations because of the "unusual and extraordinary threat" from cyber-attacks that the US faces from beyond its borders, the White House said.

"Today's Executive Order allows us to expose and financially isolate those who hide in the shadows of the Internet to conduct malicious cyber activities," US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said.

Officials at the White House and the Treasury Department stress that the tool will not be used to target free speech on the internet or to curtail digital innovation.

They also say that this new authority will not replace traditional law enforcement responses to cyber threats. Instead, it is another tool for combating the threats when they originate from places with weak cyber security laws, or that have otherwise eluded traditional responses.

Mr Obama's Special Assistant and Cyber Security Coordinator Michael Daniel said the tool is "not one that we are expecting to use every day, in most cases our diplomatic and law enforcements tools will be the ones we turn to first."

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US officials are particularly concerned with cyber threats originating from China and a select few other countries, that they say are capable of mounting large-scale cyber attacks. They fear that these attacks could shut down the electrical grid or other critical systems.

In recent years, several major US retailers have been victims of data breaches that compromised the financial data of customers.

In December, Sony Pictures was initially forced to pull its comedy The Interview from theatres after hackers released the personal data of its employees and embarrassing emails written by executives. The hackers also threatened violence at cinemas. Sony eventually decided to release the film in theatres and online.

The White House blamed North Korea for the attacks on the movie studio and later imposed sanctions on the reclusive country.