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Official: Cyber Crime Must Be Seen as Foreign Policy Priority

FILE - A specialist works at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Va., Sept. 9, 2014.

The U.S. State Department's point person on computer security issues says progress is being made in fighting cyber crime worldwide but that the international community is only starting to wake up to the issue's importance.

The recent hacker attack targeting Sony Pictures, which North Korea was allegedly behind, and another targeting email systems belonging to the State Department and White House, allegedly the work of Russian hackers, graphically illustrated the threat of cyber crime.

According to Christopher Painter, the State Department's coordinator for cyber issues, the international community has been playing catch-up.

"While the Internet has been growing and evolving for a few decades now, the international community has only more recently begun to fully grasp cyber issues as a foreign policy priority," he told a Senate subcommittee Thursday.

The Obama administration put forward its strategy for keeping cyberspace secure in 2011 with the release of the International Strategy for Cyberspace.

That strategy document says the U.S. will "oppose those who would seek to disrupt networks and systems" and respond to cyber attacks as it would to any other threat to the country. It also stresses the need for international cooperation.

The State Department's Painter said Thursday that "significant progress” had been made in achieving the International Strategy for Cyberspace's goals.

He noted, among other things, that 14 additional countries have joined the Budapest Convention — an international treaty signed in 2001 that seeks to address cyber crime by harmonizing national laws and increasing cooperation among nations.

The private sector is also still playing catch-up in trying to deal with the cyber crime threat.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit group, there were 783 data breaches in the United States last year — a 27 percent increase over 2013. Victims included giant retailers Target and Home Depot. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group, has estimated that cybercrime costs the U.S. economy $100 billion annually.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who now leads a financial industry trade association, told another congressional panel this week that 80 percent of companies breached in 2014 "did not know they were breached until somebody else told them,” and that they often found out only "months later."