Following GitHub attack, Obama declares US cybersecurity a ‘national emergency’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 April, 2015, 10:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 2015, 11:44am

US president Barack Obama has issued an executive order declaring a national emergency due to the threat posed by cyber attacks.

The order empowers the US Treasury to use financial sanctions against foreign actors who threaten critical infrastructure, seek to steal financial data or trade secrets, or launch denial-of-service attacks.

In the order, Obama said that he found "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."

The move comes after a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on GitHub, the US-based open-source code repository. According to researchers, attackers hijacked widely used analytics tools offered by Chinese search engine Baidu to redirect visitors to thousands of websites to GitHub, flooding the site's servers. (In a statement, Baidu denied that its services were used in the attack.)

Hackers were targeting two anti-censorship tools hosted on GitHub and created by activist group GreatFire, whose own website was hit with a severe DDoS attack earlier this month.

"Based on the technical forensic evidence provided above and the detailed research that has been done on the GitHub attack, we can now confidently conclude that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is responsible for both of these attacks," said GreatFire's Charlie Smith (a pseudonym) following the GitHub attack.

"The Great Firewall has switched from being a passive, inbound filter to being an active and aggressive outbound one."

"The only people who would really benefit from [this attack] would be China," James Lewis, senior fellow at the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post.

"The last couple months we've seen a real sea change in Chinese Internet policy, where they've become more assertive about blocking Western sites and pushing back on their citizen's ability to access information from outside of the country," Lewis said.

In January, virtual private network (VPN) services that are widely used in China to bypass the so-called Great Firewall were blocked and Google's popular email service Gmail, which has long suffered intermittent service in China, became completely inaccessible.

Google announced this week that it would no longer recognise internet security certificates issued by the official China Internet Network Information Centre, following a trust breach. 

Thousands of websites are blocked in China, such as social networking services Facebook and Twitter and many news organisations, including the South China Morning Post.