The Obama administration's finding that the president has the power to order a preemptive cyber strike stands as a warning to China, which remains unresponsive to U.S. efforts to curtail digital attacks from the country, cyber security experts say.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that officials involved in the administration's decision told the newspaper that the president could order a strike if the United States determined that a cyber attack capable to destroying critical infrastructure was imminent. The risk would have to threaten national security, as opposed to a corporation or other private entity, which would be handled by law enforcement.
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The disclosure comes less than a week after The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post revealed that hackers believed to be based in China had breached their computer systems. In the case of The Times, the hackers seemed primarily interested in finding the name of people who might have provided information for an investigative piece on the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister.
While China is not the only country believed to be targeting the U.S., its hackers are the most active in cyber espionage against U.S. companies, think tanks and government agencies. Experts believe a significant number of attacks are state sponsored.
So far, U.S. diplomatic efforts have failed to sway China to agree to curtail tattacks before they escalate into a cyber war. To pressure China to the bargaining table, the U.S. is considering cancelling visas and requiring major purchases of Chinese goods go through national security reviews, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Discussions of a preemptive strike are one more way to show the Chinese the U.S. is serious.
Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the CFR, wrote in a blog post that China has responded by saying through the People's Daily that the administration's position could trigger a worldwide arms race. "Unless we find a better medium than the major papers to signal our disapproval, the PLA Daily may be right," he said.