WASHINGTON — The US government has taken its first real swipe at China following accusations that Beijing is behind a widespread and systematic hacking campaign targeting US businesses.
Buried in a spending bill signed by President Obama on Tuesday is a provision that effectively bars much of the federal government from buying information technology made by companies linked to the Chinese government.
It is unclear what impact the legislation will have or whether it will turn out to be a symbolic gesture. The provision only affects certain nondefense government agency budgets between now and Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. It also allows for exceptions if an agency head determines that buying the technology is ‘‘in the national interest of the United States.’’
Still, the rule could upset US allies whose businesses rely on Chinese manufacturers for parts and pave the way for broader, more permanent changes in how the US government buys technology.
‘‘This is a change of direction,’’ said Stuart Baker, a former senior official at the Homeland Security Department now with the legal firm Steptoe & Johnson in Washington. ‘‘My guess is we’re going to keep going in this direction for a while.’’
Representative Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he supports the restriction and does not think it would be too cumbersome for federal agencies.
‘‘Anything we can do to call awareness to the fact that we’re continuing to be cyberattacked, we’re continuing to lose jobs, and that billions of dollars in American money is being stolen,’’ Ruppersberger said Wednesday.
In March, the US computer security firm Mandiant released details on what it said was an aggressive hacking campaign on American businesses by a Chinese military unit. Since then, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has used high-level meetings with Beijing officials to press the matter. Beijing has denied the accusations.
Congressional leaders have promised to push comprehensive legislation that would make it easier for industry to share threat data with the government. But those efforts have been bogged down over concern that too much of US citizens’ private information could end up in the hands of the federal government.
As Congress and privacy advocates debate a way ahead, lawmakers tucked a section into the latest budget resolution, which enables the government to pay for day-to day operations for the rest of the fiscal year. The provision specifically prohibits the Commerce and Justice departments, NASA, and the National Science Foundation from buying an information technology system that is ‘‘produced, manufactured, or assembled’’ by any entity that is ‘‘owned, operated, or subsidized’’ by the People’s Republic of China.
But a blanket prohibition of technology linked to the Chinese government may be easier said than done. Information systems are often a complicated assembly of parts manufactured by different companies around the globe.