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Known as Presidential Policy Directive 20, the classified document "establishes a broad and strict set of standards to guide the operations of federal agencies in confronting threats in cyberspace," The Washington Post first reported.
The policy reportedly includes privacy and data security safeguards for U.S. citizens and foreign allies, and also requires that any actions comply with international laws of war. Ultimately, the policy -- which updates a 2004 presidential directive -- is meant to make clear exactly what can and cannot be done.
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"What it does, really for the first time, is it explicitly talks about how we will use cyber operations," a senior administration official told The Washington Post. "Network defense is what you're doing inside your own networks. ... Cyber operations is stuff outside that space, and recognizing that you could be doing that for what might be called defensive purposes."
Legally speaking, there can be a fine line between so-called defensive operations -- such as conducting reconnaissance -- and what constitutes acceptable levels of offensive operations. On the other hand, the existence of the new directive, despite its exact contents being secret, may help private sector organizations attain greater strike-back capabilities themselves.
One notable provision of the White House policy is that law enforcement agencies and in-place information security defenses must remain the first line of defense, and be utilized prior to any military units being authorized to battle a cyber attack. "We always want to be taking the least action necessary to mitigate the threat," a senior administration official told The Washington Post. "We don't want to have more consequences than we intend."
The new policy comes after years of inaction on the cybersecurity front by Congress. Notably, Congress this year failed to pass the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, despite the White House urging legislators to "modernize" the outdated cybersecurity laws that are currently on the books.
As a result, the White House has been drafting an executive order that will reportedly offer voluntary guidelines for critical infrastructure companies in the private sector to share security information with government agencies, to help them battle an ever-increasing volume of online attacks directed at their systems.
Last month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta warned that hackers have been infiltrating the control systems that run critical pieces of U.S. infrastructure, and likewise called on Congress to pass legislation to help. But in the absence of such legislation, he backed the alternative of a White House executive order on cybersecurity. "We have no choice because the threat that we face is already here," he said.
Many government agencies have been pushing for greater strikeback capabilities. Last year, National Security Agency director and Cyber Command commander Gen. Keith Alexander said that for cybersecurity, "the advantage is on the offense," and argued that government agencies should -- at last in some cases -- be able to take down botnets or other malicious actors.
Since then, the military has been drafting cyber rules of engagement, after being authorized by the annual defense budget in December 2011 to carry out some types of offensive cyber attacks. Likewise, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun researching cyber warfare tools.