The Justice Department and FBI announced Monday criminal charges against five officers of the Chinese military who the United States is alleging are hackers that have committed cyber crimes to steal the trade secrets of American companies including Westinghouse Electric and U.S. Steel.
The five officers indicted are each being charged with 31 criminal counts and are believed to be involved in a conspiracy, not acting independently, according to NBC. Computer attacks on multiple corporations based in the United States all led to the same building in Shanghai, which is owned by the Chinese military. Attorney General Eric Holder described the charges as fulfilling a conspiracy of “economic espionage” and noted that the announcement of their crimes “represents the first-ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking.”
Holder also noted in his comments that the Chinese government has not been cooperative when the United States has approached them about the problem in the past, instead “publicly challenging us to provide hard evidence of their hacking that could stand up in court.”
The FBI has detailed the charges on its website against officers Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui. Huang and Gu are being indicted in particular for “managing infrastructure (e.g., domain accounts) used for hacking,” while the others are being charged with actually hacking into computers belonging to private American corporations.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the Justice Department had begun preparations for this indictment, the first of its kind against Chinese government officials. The AP notes that, in March, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had announced that the Pentagon would “more than triple its cybersecurity staff in the next few years” in response to the increase in attacks that could compromise national security.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has responded to the announcement of charges with an attack on the United States. In a statement, the Ministry accused the United States of “fabricating facts and using so-called stealing network secrets as an excuse” to commit “a serious violation of basic norms of international relations” that “damages Sino-US co-operation and mutual trust.”
These are the latest in a series of accusations of cybercrimes by China from the United States. In February 2013, the Chinese government denied a very similar set of accusations of hacking American corporations to steal their trade secrets. American Internet security firm Mandiant noted in an extensive report that they had found what they believed was a hacking complex in an office building in Shanghai, where the hackers indicted today are said to work out of. Another report alleged that the Chinese government attempted to hack into the Federal Election Commission website.