WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration announced new efforts yesterday to fight the growing theft of American trade secrets, a broad but relatively restrained response to a rapidly emerging global problem that was brought into sharp focus this week by fresh evidence linking cyberstealing to China's military.
Mentioning China, but not specifically targeting that country, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the plan, including a new diplomatic push to discourage intellectual property theft abroad, along with better coordination at home to help U.S. companies protect themselves.
The administration says indications are that economic espionage is increasing, not only through electronic intrusion over the Internet but also through the recruitment of former employees of U.S. companies with knowledge of inside trade information.
"Particularly in this time of economic recovery, this work is more important than it ever has been before," Holder said at the White House announcement.
"As new technologies have torn down traditional barriers to international business and global commerce, they've also made it easier for criminals to steal trade secrets -- and to do so from anywhere in the world," Holder said. "A hacker in China can acquire source code from a software company in Virginia without leaving his or her desk. With a few keystrokes, a terminated or simply unhappy employee of a defense contractor can misappropriate designs, processes, and formulas worth billions of dollars."
Earlier this week, a Virginia-based cybersecurity firm, Mandiant, accused a secret military unit in Shanghai of years of cyberattacks against more than 140 companies, a majority of them American. The accusations and supporting evidence increased pressure on the United States to take more action against China for what experts say has been years of systematic espionage.
The Chinese government denied being involved in cybertheft, with the defense minister calling the Mandiant report deeply flawed. China's Foreign Ministry said that country has also been a victim of hacking, much of it traced to the United States.
The Obama administration report did not target any one violator, but the China problem was evident in the case studies it cited. Those did not involve cyberattacks but rather the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in trade secrets by former employees of U.S. corporations, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Cargill, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Valspar and Motorola.
The administration report didn't threaten any specific consequences for theft of trade secrets. No new fines or other trade actions were announced. It included five actions to protect American innovation:
Applying diplomatic pressure by senior officials to foreign leaders to discourage theft.
Promoting best ways to help industries protest against theft.
Enhancing U.S. law enforcement operations to increase investigations and prosecutions.
Reviewing U.S. laws to determine if they need to be strengthened to protect against theft.
Beginning a public awareness campaign.
The president signed an executive order last week to help protect the computer networks of industries from cyberattacks.