On the same day the Department of Justice issued federal indictments against seven Russian military officers for alleged hacking offenses, U.S. Deputy Assistant District Attorney Adam Hickey of the National Security Division defended the practice of charging foreign cybercrime suspects, even when the likelihood of bringing them to justice is low.
"There are some who question this approach, of criminally investigating and charging hackers sponsored by foreign states, often because we have not yet arrested the defendants..." acknowledged Hickey, speaking at the Cyber Threat Alliance's CyberNextDC event in Washington DC on Thursday. "But imagine a world in which there are no criminal charges, no detailed, formal allegation of wrongdoing -- which the government is prepared to stand behind in court. The private sector would be left alone to accuse the guilty, without recourse. What message does that send to a foreign hacker?" he continued.
Hickey said it is only relatively recently that U.S. prosecutors have embraced this strategy -- often referred to as naming and shaming -- "because for a long time, we viewed the problem of foreign state-sponsored hacking through the lens of intelligence collection alone, without regard to disruption and deterrence."
But the change in policy has yielded dividends, as indictments have often resulted in "trade remedies, sanctions, contributions to network defense, or diplomatic efforts," as well the occasional apprehension of a suspect, he said.
Touting several recent prosecutions against foreign adversaries from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, Hickey noted that the U.S. is turning the heat up on Chinese actors who attempt to steal intellectual property, in spite of a 2015 pact between America and China that prohibits the stealing of trade secrets.
According to Hickey, "you can draw a direct line from the DOJ's indictment of China's military officers in 2014 [for cyber espionage], through China's commitments in 2015, to our monitoring for compliance with those commitments, and this Administration’s response to China's economic aggression, which includes state-sponsored theft of intellectual property."