Barack Obama launched a sanctions program to target individuals and groups outside the United States that use cyberattacks to threaten U.S. foreign policy, national security or economic stability.

In an executive order, Obama declared such activities a "national emergency" and allowed the U.S. Treasury Department to freeze assets and bar other financial transactions of entities engaged in destructive cyberattacks, reported Reuters.

The executive order gave the administration the same sanctions tools it deploys to address other threats, including crises in the Middle East and Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Those tools are now available for a growing epidemic of cyberthreats aimed at U.S. computer networks, Reuters said.

"The Obama administration is really getting serious now. This order brings to bear the economic might of the United States against people who are robbing us blind and putting us in danger," said Joel Brenner, who headed U.S. counterintelligence during President George W. Bush's second term.

Obama said in a statement that harming critical infrastructure, misappropriating funds, using trade secrets for competitive advantage and disrupting computer networks would trigger the penalties. Companies that knowingly use stolen trade secrets to undermine the U.S. economy would also be targeted.

"From now on, we have the power to freeze their assets, make it harder for them to do business with U.S. companies, and limit their ability to profit from their misdeeds," Obama said.

Under the program, cyberattackers or those who conduct commercial espionage in cyberspace can be listed on the official sanctions list of specially designated nationals, a deterrent long sought by the cybercommunity, said USA Today.

Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department trial attorney and former executive with defense contractor SAIC, said the breadth of the order gave the executive branch vast new powers to respond to even routine criminal hacking.

Even denial-of-service attacks that knock websites offline with meaningless traffic, which can be orchestrated over the Internet for a few hundred dollars, could officially qualify for sanctions, he said. If used widely, he said, the order could spell "a compliance nightmare for companies."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, praised Obama's actions. "Coupled with cyberlegislation moving forward in both houses of Congress," he said, "we can take meaningful action to stop this scourge."

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