Apr 1, 2015 · 2 minutes

How should the United States respond to the hacking of a Japanese company that made a film about Seth Rogen and James Franco killing Kim Jong-un? Lawmakers, intelligence agencies, and other officials have grappled with that question since the November 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

President Obama supplied the answer earlier this morning: with sanctions.

Obama has signed an executive order allowing the US to impose sanctions on countries who conduct serious cyberattacks that include "attacking critical infrastructure such as a power grid; disrupting major computer networks; stealing intellectual property or trade secrets; or benefiting from the stolen secrets and property," according to the Washington Post's report on the order.

Sanctions would allow the US to punish perpetrators of cyberattacks without having to escalate into a full-blown cyberwar. Instead of struggling to respond to an attack, as the White House did when Sony was hacked, the country now has a way to handle cyberattacks without having to think up a "proportional" reaction.

Some argued after the Sony hack that the US should attack North Korea's infrastructure. (One lawmaker claims that the US actually did attack North Korea, and was behind an Internet blackout inside the country.) Others said such an attack would be a drastic response to the hacking of a private company.

This order could have some of the sting of direct retaliation without the thorny issues of "proportionality" or political concerns. The Washington Post reports:

A senior administration official said the new order puts people on notice 'that we’re not going to just stand by while these threats grow.'

'Part of the message it will send is if you think you can just hide behind borders and leap laws and carry out your activities, that’s just not going to be the case,' said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. 'We have other ways of getting at you, and we can hit where it hurts in terms of a financial impact.'

The rest of the world's response to that hack went "beyond the realm of stupid," as one expert put it -- this order is the first step in making those responses a little more rational. Let's just hope it's used to respond to real acts of cyberwar instead of the hacking of a private company that made a movie North Korea (and anyone with even a few functioning brain cells) decided it didn't like.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]