China’s military was behind the largest database hacking attack in U.S. history, the Justice Department said Monday.
Prosecutors charged four members of a secretive electronic-espionage branch of the People’s Liberation Army with breaking into the networks of the Equifax credit reporting agency and stealing the personal information of 145 million Americans.
“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” said Attorney General William P. Barr, who made the announcement. “Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the Internet’s cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us. ”
The hackers successfully stole names, Social Security numbers and other personal information stored in the company’s databases. The news of the data breach provoked public outrage, led to Congressional hearings, the resignation of the company’s chief executive, and a legal dispute that resulted in a settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The four — members of the People’s Liberation Army, an arm of the Chinese military — are also accused of stealing the company’s trade secrets, law enforcement officials said.
“Unfortunately, the Equifax hack fits a disturbing and unacceptable pattern of state-sponsored computer intrusions and thefts by China and its citizens that have targeted personally identifiable information, trade secrets, and other confidential information,” Barr said.
The case comes as the Trump administration has warned against what it sees as the growing political and economic influence of China, and efforts by Beijing to collect data on Americans and steal scientific research and innovation.
The case is one of several the Justice Department has brought over the years against members of the PLA. The Obama administration in 2014 charged five Chinese military hackers with breaking into the networks of major American corporations to siphon trade secrets.
The criminal charges were filed in federal court in Atlanta, where the company is based.
The indictment, which details efforts the hackers took to cover their tracks, includes charges of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit economic espionage and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
–The Associated Press contributed to this report.