Lawmakers want to sanction people who profit from economic cyberspying


Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). (Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Photo)

Days after the Department of Justice announced the indictment of five Chinese military employees for crimes related to economic cyber-espionage, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would punish the people that benefit from such spying where it hurts: In the pocket book.

The Deter Cyber Theft Act, introduced Thursday by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is revised version of a proposal introduced last year.

"Our bill would authorize the President to direct the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of any foreign person or company, including a state owned enterprise, determined to have benefited from the theft of U.S. technology or proprietary information stolen in cyberspace," Levin said in a statement Thursday. Those foreign companies or individuals would be subject to a new category of sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The bill also require the director of national intelligence to publish an annual report of which foreign nations are contributing to commercial cyberspying against the United States -- be it by actively engaging in the practice themselves or by failing to prosecute it domestically. The report would include watch list of countries actively using the Internet for economic or industrial espionage and identify which U.S. technologies or trade secrets are being targeted by hackers among other things.

In a statement, McCain said this is an adaptive approach to the issue. "The techniques used by cyber criminals to steal information vital to our economic and national security interests are by no means simple or static, and the tools available to our government to combat and deter this activity should not be either," he argued.

"This bill will give us insight into those most culpable for cyber-based economic espionage aimed at U.S. innovation, and will disrupt those activities by authorizing the president to target with sanctions those exploiting our intellectual property for their financial gain,” he said.

The indictment against members of a Chinese military unit  marked the first time the United States has publicly pursued criminal charges related to economic cyber-espionage against the employees of a foreign government. The government alleges that the group targeted a number of U.S. companies including WestingHouse Electric and U.S. Steel -- stealing technical trade secrets as well as strategic business intelligence. During a news conference Monday, Bob Anderson, the executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch at FBI headquarters called the action "the new normal" -- suggesting that the United States plans become more aggressive on the issue.

China did not take the indictment lightly. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said was based on "fabricated facts," and China suspended its involvement in a joint working group started last spring to tackle the issue of economic cyber-espionage. Gang also accused the U.S. of being the real villains: "For a long time, it has been obvious that the relevant U.S. departments have been carrying out large-scale, organized cybertheft and cyber-surveillance on foreign dignitaries, corporations and individuals. China is the victim of U.S. cybertheft and cyber-surveillance."

In his statement, Levin dismissed comparisons between the alleged Chinese economic cyber-espionage and the surveillance activities revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden nearly a year ago. "The Snowden revelations are about espionage," he said, "the United States does not steal intellectual property for economic gain."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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