Motives for OPM hack unclear, U.S. could retaliate

President Obama's press secretary declined to confirm China's role in the massive OPM breach, but left open the potential for retaliation if a nation state is determined to be involved.
President Obama's press secretary declined to confirm China's role in the massive OPM breach, but left open the potential for retaliation if a nation state is determined to be involved.

While President Obama's press secretary Josh Earnest declined to confirm allegations that China was behind the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), he did tell reporters at a press briefing Friday that if a nation state was found to be behind the attack, President Obama would have the authority to retaliate.

“In April, the president, using his executive authority, signed an executive order giving the Treasury Department additional authority to use economic sanctions to punish or hold accountable those who are either responsible for a cyber intrusion or are benefiting from one,” Earnest told reporters, adding the example demonstrates Obama “using his executive authority in a way that reflects and demonstrates his comprehension of how significant the cyber risk is right now.”

Igor Baikalov, chief scientist, at Securonix, in a statement sent to SCMagazine Friday acknowledged the president's authority but asked, “Are we ready to explore it?”

And Lisa Sotto, managing partner of the Hunton & Williams LLP's New York office and head of the firm's Global Privacy & Data Security Practice, had told SCMagazine.com in an interview that she expected that if the breach is the work of the Chinese government, “we will see some retaliation."

But despite the chatter and musings about China's involvement in the OPM hack, Earnest refused to confirm the country, with whom the U.S. has had a dicey relationship when it comes to technology and cybersecurity, was the perpetrator of the attack.

“I can't get into any conclusions that have been reached about who or what country may be responsible for this particular incident,” said Earnest, pointing out that “the President has frequently -- including in every single meeting that he's conducted with the current Chinese President -- raised China's activities in cyberspace as a significant source of concern.”

That posture “was on display” last year, he said, after the Justice Department indicted five Chinese military officials for cybercrimes. “That's an indication that our law enforcement professionals certainly take the broader cyber threat very seriously and are aware of the threat that is emanating from China,” he said.  

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