The Obama administration's finding that the president has the power to order a preemptive cyberstrike stands as a warning to China, which remains unresponsive to U.S. efforts to curtail digital attacks from the country, cybersecurity 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 cyberattack 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.
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 cyberespionage 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 cyberwar. 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.
The U.S. threat of a pre-emptive strike is likely to both reduce and increase the risk of cyberwar, said Murray Jennex, a cybersecurity expert and associate professor at San Diego State University. "It will reduce the risk of nations like Iran and China doing activities that look like hacking, but I think it increases risk overall, as there may be others who attempt to make it look like China or Iran are attacking, and we preemptively attack the wrong target," he said.
Iran is suspected of being behind a series of attacks that disrupted the online operations of major U.S. financial institutions last year.
When it comes to national security, the U.S. is within its right to respond preemptively to an imminent attack, whether it is in the form of missiles or code traveling through the Internet to destroy the power grid in a region of the U.S., said Andrew Serwin, head of the privacy, security and information management practice at the law firm Foley & Lardner.
"I think there's a cyberwar going on now," Serwin said. "And I think it's a matter of how public we may be about what we're willing to do."