US charges Chinese citizens for espionage in major hacking campaign targeting navy, NASA, others
US officials have charged two Chinese citizens they allege carried out an extensive hacking campaign to steal data from military service members, government agencies and private companies in the United States and nearly a dozen other countries.
- Hackers compromised the personal information of more than 100,000 navy personnel
- Targets included companies in banking, manufacturing, electronics, pharmaceuticals
- The FBI boss says China is the most severe long-term threat to the US
The US Justice Department said Zhu Hua and Zhang Jianguo, acting on behalf of Beijing’s main intelligence agency, were involved in computer hacking attacks on the US navy, NASA and businesses in numerous sectors.
The defendants hacked computers to steal intellectual property and confidential business and technological data, according to the indictment.
“China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the US as the world’s leading superpower and they’re using illegal methods to get there,” FBI director Chris Wray said at a news conference.
“China’s state-sponsored actors are the most active perpetrators of economic espionage.”
US authorities said the two defendants, who worked in China in association with the Chinese Ministry of State Security, were charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
They said the accused compromised the names, social security numbers and other personal information of more than 100,000 navy personnel.
“No country poses a broader, more severe long-term threat” to the United States than China, Mr Wray said.
The two charged men are not in custody and it is unlikely they will ever face a US court.
US and British authorities also condemned China for violating 2015 agreements to curb cyber espionage for business purposes, slamming Chinese efforts to steal other countries’ trade secrets and technologies and to compromise government computers.
FBI boss Christopher Wray says China wants to replace the US as the world’s superpower. (AP: Evan Vucci)
The timing of the action may worsen tensions between Washington and Beijing after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, in Canada at the request of the United States.
The charges were announced by President Donald Trump’s administration just weeks after the United States and China agreed to talks aimed at resolving an ongoing trade dispute that threatens global economic growth.
US authorities said hacking targets included NASA’s Goddard Space Centre and Jet Propulsion Laboratory and companies involved in aviation, space and satellite technology.
The targets also included companies involved in banking and finance, telecommunications, consumer electronics, manufacturing technology, pharmaceutical technology, oil and gas exploration and production technology, communications technology, computer processor technology and maritime technology, they added.
China targeted a “who’s who” of American businesses, Mr Wray said, though he did not name specific companies.
Mr Zhu and Mr Zhang were members of a hacking group known within the cyber security community as Advanced Persistent Threat 10, or the APT10 Group, US authorities said.
The defendants worked for a company in China called Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company, or Huaying Haitai, they said.
“This campaign shows that elements of the Chinese Government are not upholding the commitments China made directly to the UK in a 2015 bilateral agreement,” the British Government said in a statement.
Growing list of cases against Chinese hackers
This is the latest in a series of hacking cases brought by the United States against alleged Chinese hackers.
In October, the US Government charged Chinese intelligence officers with conspiring with hackers and company insiders to break into private companies’ computer systems and steal information on a turbo fan engine used in commercial jetliners.
The same month, the Justice Department arrested an alleged spy for China’s Ministry of State Security on charges of economic espionage and attempting to steal US aviation trade secrets.
In September, a Chinese national who had enlisted in the US Army Reserve was arrested in Chicago for working for Chinese intelligence to recruit engineers and scientists, including some who worked for US defence contractors.
Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden also were expected to denounce Chinese cyber efforts, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It is a sign that the United States is building an international coalition to hold China accountable for its egregious behaviour,” Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer of cyber security technology company CrowdStrike, said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington and NASA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The US navy referred questions to the FBI.