Americans Need Protection from Foreign-Sponsored Hacking

Military cyberattack (stock photo)

Liz Snell is the founder of the former organization Military Spouses of Strength and a contributor at Military Spouse Magazine. She is the proud wife of a retired Marine and mother of two.

Feb. 10, 2015, was supposed to be a joyous day. The night before, I had arrived at Camp Pendleton, California, to attend my husband's military retirement party. He didn’t know I was coming, and my being there was going to be a big surprise. Unknown to either of us, my attendance wouldn’t be the only surprise that day.

At 6 a.m., I awoke to frantic messages from friends asking what I was doing with my Twitter account for Military Spouses of Strength, a nonprofit that I had formed to help military spouses with mental health issues.

The Twitter account had been hacked by what the FBI told me at the time were Islamic State sympathizers. From my organization's Twitter account, the cyberattackers were threatening the Obama family, my family and other public officials. Last summer, I was told by a reporter that the attack was carried out by “Fancy Bear,” a Russian cyber espionage group. Why Military Spouses of Strength was a target is a question that remains unanswered -- at least I was never given an answer.

My extended family was worried for the safety of myself and my girls, and were insistent that we stay in a hotel the day that “ISIS” stated they were going to come to our home to hurt us. In hindsight, the FBI didn’t provide any guidance other than, “We don’t think you have cause to worry.”

We tried to keep what was going on hidden from the kids, but they eventually learned and became anxious themselves.

Related: If Russia Hacked Me, It Exposed the US Army Family System

The anxiety that came with the cyberattack wasn’t the only side effect. I quickly learned that potential members and supporters distance themselves from organizations that have fallen victim to a cyberattack. In the case of Military Spouses of Strength, it became increasingly hard to find supporters and, as a result, harder to help the military spouse community. Eventually, I had to shut down the organization.

I also learned that, shockingly, there isn’t any legal recourse in the United States for citizens or entities that have been the victim of a foreign-backed cyberattack. U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that foreign governments are immune from legal action on the part of American plaintiffs (including the seizure of assets) as a result of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a law passed long before the Internet existed. In effect, our laws provide hostile powers with blanket immunity for their hacking activities because of a legal loophole.

Global society is, of course, increasingly interconnected due to cyberspace. It is hard to believe that we have yet to protect citizens and organizations in the United States from foreign-sponsored hacking -- that is, until now.

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Michigan, has just introduced a bill to amend FSIA that would go a long way toward providing much-needed legal protection to cyberattack victims. It would give hacking victims of foreign-sponsored attacks effective recourse to the courts for the first time by carving out a cyberattack exception to the blanket immunity provided by FSIA to foreign governments and their agents.

As someone who has been personally and professionally victimized by a cyberattack from a foreign state, I am thankful that a bill is being proposed to provide some recourse to hacking victims, and hopefully reduce the number of cyberattacks we see in the future.

I never expected to be a victim of a cyberattack of a foreign state, and I am sure you don’t either. I believe foreign states will count on that until Congress acts.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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