Obama Wants to Freeze CyberCriminals' Assets, Before They've Been Tried

And if you try to help any such accused cybercriminal, you are breaking the "law" too.


This went public at the start of the month but just came to my attention this week, an extraordinary sounding criminal justice power grab via executive order from President Obama's office.

Here's the White House press release (on April 1, an unpropitious time for something that should strike anyone who believes in the integrity of the American legal system as a bad prank), and the awful details of the "Blocking the Property of Certain Persons Engaging in Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities" order.

The order–constituting a declared "national emergency"!–is aimed at:

any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly, cyber-enabled activities originating from, or directed by persons located, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States that are reasonably likely to result in, or have materially contributed to, a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States 

Not, you will notice, determined by a court of law in any fair judicial procedure, just determined by his own executive branch agency. And what does this order do to those people?

All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

Total freeze-out of ability to use your money or possessions. On an executive agency determination.

And that's not all. What if you, U.S. citizen, feel some sympathy toward someone so punished by executive ukase? You too are prohibited from giving, or taking, anything to, or from, that victim:

 the making of donations…by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to section 1 of this order would seriously impair my ability to deal with the national emergency declared in this order, and I hereby prohibit such donations….

The prohibitions….include but are not limited to:

(a) the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order; and

(b) the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.

These sort of government attempts to block the flow of value in a tyrannical manner are one more reason digital currencies such at bitcoin are so important.

And it just wouldn't do before cracking down on such an accused cybercriminal to give them any warning at all, so the crackdown shall be instantaneous:

….because of the ability to transfer funds or other assets instantaneously, prior notice to such persons of measures to be taken pursuant to this order would render those measures ineffectual. I therefore determine that for these measures to be effective in addressing the national emergency declared in this order, there need be no prior notice of a listing or determination made pursuant to section 1 of this order.

Paul Rosenzwieg at Lawfare thinks this is a great sign Obama is really serious about cybercrime. The White House's own friendly blogging about how great this order is. The New York Times seems unconcerned about the procedural issues involved, merely noting that the administration promises to be "judicious" in the use of these powers, and that:

The president's order could be a good step if it ends up freezing the American bank accounts of the shadowy hackers in places like North Korea, Russia and China who regularly mount attacks on American businesses and government agencies. But it is unclear if American investigators can reliably identify those bad guys and whether the criminals even have any assets in the United States that can be frozen.

The Electric Frontier Foundation raises concerns that this order could crush legitimate cybersecurity research by the letter of the, well, not law, but "order." They conclude: "prosecutorial (or in this case, Executive Branch) discretion, coupled with draconian penalties are not the answer to computer crime." Or any crime.

*Headline originally contained the word "all" before CyberCriminals, which was wrong whether you applied it to "assets" (as I meant) or "CyberCriminals," as the letter of the order as quoted above applies merely to those outside or "substantially" outside the U.S., whatever that means; and the assets frozen are only those in the U.S., not all assets everywhere.