Congress Moves to Sanction Chinese, Russian, Iranian Hackers

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July 23, 2020

Congress is considering new legislation that would level sanctions on Chinese, Russian, and Iranian hackers who steal sensitive U.S. data, including new research on the coronavirus.

The legislation came the same day the Trump administration unveiled an unprecedented indictment against two Chinese hackers who the United States alleges stole proprietary American data, including coronavirus research from medical institutions. U.S. law enforcement officials said the Communist Party-backed hackers had been running state-backed espionage operations for at least the last 10 years.

Congress is now moving on the issue, with the first salvo being a bill by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) that would expand U.S. sanctions to cover those who engage in any hacks that endanger American national security. This would include Chinese hackers, as well as those serving rogue regimes like Iran and Russia—both of which have launched scores of cyberattacks on the U.S. government and officials during the past several years.

Frustration with China has been mounting among Democrats and Republicans as the Communist regime continues its coronavirus disinformation campaign and steps up cyber-espionage operations across the globe. Republicans argue that sanctions could help deter hackers, but it is unclear if Democrats would join their colleagues to forward such a measure. Both parties, however, have expressed a desire to hold China accountable for its actions.

While the Justice Department has indicted at least 38 Chinese companies and individuals for cyber-espionage operations in recent years, only two of them have been sanctioned by the Treasury Department, which is responsible for all American sanctions. GOP lawmakers seek to compel the Treasury Department to take further action against cybercriminals across the globe.

While both Iran and Russia have faced severe economic sanctions for human rights abuses and other matters, their hack attacks have gone largely unpunished by the Treasury Department. McCarthy's bill would help rectify this by requiring the federal government to issue a report that identifies the countries behind severe hack attacks and determine whether sanctions would be appropriate.

McCarthy said China must pay for its theft of American intellectual property. Since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, Chinese hackers have stepped up their attacks on the U.S. government, medical institutions, and research organizations. The Communist Party's goal is to steal this sensitive information and use it to gain a competitive edge against America. While the Trump administration has condemned this activity, it has done little to stem it—prompting a delegation of top GOP lawmakers this week to petition the White House to take concrete action.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials in a Houston-based consulate were caught burning documents on Tuesday before evacuating the building under a Trump administration order. It is believed the officials were rushing to erase information that could implicate China in the theft of U.S. intellectual property.

McCarthy's proposed legislation, dubbed the Defend COVID Research from Hackers Act, would authorize the president to level sanctions on any foreign individual engaged in cyber-related crimes deemed a threat to the United States. This includes hacks that impact the American economy, its public health system, and national security apparatus.

The bill would also require the State Department and director of national intelligence to inform Congress about all known cyber-related crimes committed by foreign nations, including hacks related to the coronavirus.