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Trump: Cybersecurity is a national defense priority

In a strategy document, the White House calls for stronger defenses against hackers from criminal enterprises and places like Russia, China and Iran.


The Trump administration's national security strategy document says the country needs to improve its cybersecurity defenses.

James Martin/CNET

The White House is making it clear: Threats to cybersecurity are a threat to the stability of the United States.

Now, what to do about it?

In a strategy document released Monday, the administration of President Donald Trump mentions cybersecurity issues dozens of times, and doesn't shy away from naming the countries most likely to use computer networks as a weapon against the US. The document leaves out most specifics on how the government will address this threat, but it offers a substantial update since Trump's last public policy move on cybersecurity -- an executive order signed in May.

Hacking from both criminal enterprises and the governments of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran destabilize the economy and threaten the nation's critical infrastructure, the document says. In response, "The United States will deter, defend, and when necessary defeat malicious actors who use cyberspace capabilities against the United States."

While the document names the energy sector and other pieces of "critical infrastructure" as potential targets of hackers and other kinds of attackers, there's one word that doesn't come up: elections. Under former President Barack Obama, the US Department of Homeland Security said it would classify elections as part of the country's critical infrastructure and seek to help states and local governments keep hackers out of the voting process.

The omission isn't surprising, said Michael Sulmeyer, a cybersecurity and national defense expert at Harvard's Belfer Center.

"It seems to be a sensitive topic," Sulmeyer said of election hacking. "Objectively, there should be stuff in there about election security, but based on everything we know about this administration, that's almost an unreasonable expectation." Trump has vacillated on whether Russia was responsible for hacking that led to the public disclosure of emails from Democratic party operatives.

The document does name Russia, however, the country that intelligence officials say ran a campaign of hacking and misinformation during the 2016 election that brought Trump to the White House. 

"Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world," the document says.

This section is surprising, Sulmeyer said. "For all the political discourse going on, there's no doubt that the author of this document believes Russia is really up to no good in cyberspace."

The document also names China as a country that hacks to steal intellectual property, an issue that came to a head during the Obama administration. In 2015, Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping made an agreement banning the countries from hacking each other for economic gain.

But as for the lack of concrete steps listed in the document, Sulmeyer said, that's typical of a national security strategy document. "These documents are not necessarily known for being innovative," he said. "This is not where you take big chances."

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