WASHINGTON — As the East Coast suffered from the effects of a ransomware attack on a major petroleum pipeline, President Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday that placed strict new standards on the cybersecurity of any software sold to the federal government.
The move is part of a broad effort to strengthen the United States’ defenses by encouraging private companies to practice better cybersecurity or risk being locked out of federal contracts. But the bigger effect may arise from what could, over time, become akin to a government rating of the security of software products, much the way automobiles get a safety rating or restaurants in New York get a health safety grade.
The order comes amid a wave of new cyberattacks, more sophisticated and far-reaching than ever before. Over the past year, roughly 2,400 ransomware attacks have hit corporate, local and federal offices in extortion plots that lock up victims’ data — or publish it — unless they pay a ransom.
The most urgent fear is an attack on critical infrastructure, a point made clear this week to Americans, who were panic-buying gasoline. A ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline’s information systems forced the company to shut down a critical pipeline that supplies 45 percent of the East Coast’s gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for several days.
While every president since George W. Bush has issued new guidelines to bolster the country’s digital defenses, Mr. Biden’s order is intended to reach deep into the private sector. And it is far more detailed than past efforts.
For the first time, the United States will require all software purchased by the federal government to meet, within six months, a series of new cybersecurity standards. Although the companies would have to “self-certify,” violators would be removed from federal procurement lists, which could kill their chances of selling their products on the commercial market.
The order also establishes an incident review board, much like the teams that investigate airline accidents, to learn lessons from major hacking episodes. The White House is mandating that the first incident under review will be the SolarWinds hack, in which Russia’s premier intelligence agency altered the computer code of an American company’s network management software. It gave Russia broad access to 18,000 agencies, organizations and companies, mostly in the United States.
The new order also requires all federal agencies to encrypt data, whether it is in storage or while it is being transmitted — two very different challenges. When China stole 21.5 million files about federal employees and contractors holding security clearances, none of the files were encrypted, meaning they could be easily read. (Chinese hackers, investigators later concluded, encrypted the files themselves — to avoid being detected as they sent the sensitive records back to Beijing.)
Previous efforts to mandate minimum standards on software have failed to get through Congress, notably in a major showdown nine years ago. Small businesses have said the changes are not affordable, and larger ones have opposed an intrusive role of the federal government inside their systems.
But Mr. Biden decided it was more important to move quickly than to try to fight for broader mandates on Capitol Hill. His aides said it was a first step, and industry officials said it was bolder than they expected.
Amit Yoran, the chief executive of Tenable and a former cybersecurity official in the Department of Homeland Security, said the question on everyone’s mind was whether Mr. Biden’s order would stop the next Colonial or SolarWinds attacks.
“No one policy, government initiative or technology can do that,” Mr. Yoran said. “But this is a great start.”
Government officials have complained that Colonial had poor defenses, and while it established a hard shell around its computer networks, it had no way of monitoring an adversary who got inside. The Biden administration hopes the standards set out in the executive order, requiring multifactor authentication and other safeguards, will become widespread and improve security globally.
Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised the order but said it would need to be followed by congressional action.
Mr. Warner said recent attacks “have highlighted what has become increasingly obvious in recent years: that the United States is simply not prepared to fend off state-sponsored or even criminal hackers intent on compromising our systems for profit or espionage.”
The new order is the first major public part of a multilayered review of defensive, offensive and legal strategies to take on adversaries around the world. This executive order, however, focuses entirely on deepening defenses, in hopes of deterring attackers because they fear they would fail — or run a higher risk of being detected.
The Justice Department is ramping up a new task force to take on ransomware, after the discovery in recent months that such attacks are more than just extortion, they can bring down sectors of the economy.
Mr. Biden announced sanctions against Russia for the SolarWinds hack, and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has said there will also be “unseen” consequences. So far, the United States has not taken similar action against China’s government for its presumed involvement in another attack, exploiting holes in a Microsoft system used by large companies around the world.
The executive order was first drafted in February in response to the SolarWinds intrusion. That attack was especially sophisticated because hackers working for the Russian government managed to change code under development by the company, which unsuspectingly distributed the malware in an update to its software packages. It was discovered during Mr. Biden’s transition and led him to declare he could not trust the integrity of federal computer systems.
The review board created under the executive order will be co-led by the secretary of homeland security and a private-sector official, based on the specific episode it is investigating at the time, in an effort to win over industry executives who fear the investigations could be fodder for lawsuits.
Because it was created by an executive order, not an act of Congress, the new board will not have the same broad powers as a safety board. But officials are still hopeful it will be valuable in learning of vulnerabilities, improving security practices and urging companies to invest more in improving their networks.
Much of the executive order is focused on information sharing and transparency. It aims to speed the time companies that have been victimized by a hack or discover vulnerabilities share that information with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.