The United States government is preparing the first round of sanctions against foreign entities or individuals involved in hacking, according to a senior Department of Justice official. The move will mark the first test of the government's newest tool in cyberwar deterrence.
The presidential authorization for cyberwar related economic sanctions, announced at the start of the month, is still "hot off the presses", but Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security Luke Dembosky told ABC News he "wouldn't expect it to take too long" before it's put to use."
Dembosky said that while certain potential targets were in mind even before the new sanctions were authorized, the government is being very meticulous about choosing who it goes after and when, with his department working with the State Department, Treasury and others to ensure tight coordination and documentation.
Announced April 1, the sanctions are designed to go beyond the hackers themselves and instead allow authorities to target customers "downstream", essentially the individuals and entities that buy or use information or capabilities they know or suspect to have been illegally obtained by hackers.
The sanctions would see economic asset freezes and adding difficulty for companies involved to do business in the United States, according to the White House.
"This is about leveling the playing field," Dembosky said told the RSA cyber security conference in San Francisco.
In announcing the new sanction capability, President Obama said that the cyber threats facing the nation are a "national emergency."
"The increasing prevalence and severity of malicious cyber-enabled activities originating from, or directed by persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," Obama said.
Dembosky declined to confirm who the first round of sanctions could target, but U.S. officials have publicly criticized cyber attacks from Chinese and Russian actors against both the U.S. government and major American companies.
Speaking alongside Dumbosky, Sean Kanuck, the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber Issues at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the conference on Friday that China is "leading the way" in cyberwarfare activities, including industrial espionage.
Last May the Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military officers with hacking American companies to steal trade secrets about nuclear and solar power.
Just this week U.S. officials blamed Russian hackers for infiltrating both the State Department and the White House's unclassified email systems.