The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday unsealed charges against two Chinese intelligence officers for their alleged involvement in extensive hacking campaigns that targeted more than 45 businesses in attempts to steal intellectual property and other confidential business information.
The list of alleged victims includes a wide range of commercial and defense technology companies and several government entities, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The group also allegedly targeted more than 40 computers to steal confidential data belonging to the U.S. Navy, which included the personal information of more than 100,000 personnel.
The private companies infiltrated by the group are unnamed, which is common in criminal complaints, but include those involved in industrial factory automation, radar technology, oil exploration, IT services, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and computer processor technology.
“The indictment alleges that the defendants were part of a group that hacked computers in at least a dozen countries and gave China’s intelligence service access to sensitive business information,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement. “This is outright cheating and theft, and it gives China an unfair advantage at the expense of law-abiding businesses and countries that follow the international rules in return for the privilege of participating in the global economic system.”
The charges are the latest move by the Trump administration to demonstrate how China has routinely violated an informal anti-espionage or “data theft” agreement between former President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which came about in 2015 after U.S. threats to retaliate over the China’s persistent use of hackers to steal new technologies.
The current backdrop here is that the U.S. and China are embroiled in a damaging trade war that has threatened both economies. While the strain can be more keenly observed in Shanghai’s stock market “bloodbath,” the impact of such moves historically reverberates globally. This trouble, in other words, is good for almost no one.
The Trump administration is hard-pressing China to sign a new trade deal early next year, and its seeking leverage in some very peculiar places: The president recently suggested, for instance, that the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer in Canada (at the U.S.’s urging) could benefit the U.S. in negotiations—a statement read by many people to suggest that the U.S. had taken an actual hostage solely to gain bargaining influence.
Regardless of any actual crimes they may have committed, the charges brought against China’s hackers Thursday will undoubtedly play a role in the negotiations. Notably, the complaint specifies that at least some of the attacks took place in the years following Obama and Xi’s “gentlemen’s agreement.”
The two men named in the complaint are Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong. The U.S. identified them as nationals of the People’s Republic of China and members of the advanced persistent threat known as “Stone Panda” and “Red Apollo,” among other code names.
Other countries targeted by the group include Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, according to the complaint.
Senator Mark Warner, who recently unveiled what he called a new cyber doctrine for the United States, applauded the DOJ over the announcement. Its moves to hold China accountable, he said, “are important in exposing some of the threats posed by China as it attempts to pursue economic and technological dominance over the United States.”
“While legal action is important, a truly effective response will require a coordinated approach with our allies and a comprehensive strategy to protect our national security and enhance U.S. competitiveness and resiliency,” he added. “We have to punch back against China’s malign activities—but we also have to do more than play defense if we’re going to truly check China’s bad behavior.”