US: Hackers working with the Chinese government targeted firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus and stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world, the Justice Department said Tuesday as it announced criminal charges.
The indictment does not accuse the two Chinese defendants of actually obtaining the coronavirus research, but it does underscore the extent to which scientific innovation has been a top target for foreign governments and criminal hackers looking to know what American companies are developing during the pandemic. In this case, the hackers researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of biotech firms and diagnostic companies that were developing vaccines and testing kits and researching antiviral drugs.
According to AP, The charges are the latest in a series of aggressive Trump administration actions targeting China. They come as President Donald Trump, his reelection prospects damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, has blamed China for the pandemic and as administration officials have escalated their denunciations of Beijing, including over alleged efforts to steal intellectual property through hacking.
The indictment includes trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy charges against the hackers, former classmates at an electrical engineering college who prosecutors say worked together for more than a decade targeting high-tech companies in more than 10 countries.
The hackers, identified as Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, stole information not only for their personal profit but also research and technology that they knew would be of value to the Chinese government, prosecutors say.
In some instances, the indictment says, they provided an officer for a Chinese intelligence service with whom they worked email accounts and passwords belonging to clergymen, dissidents and pro-democracy activists who could then be targeted. The officer gave help of his own, providing malicious software after one of the hackers struggled to compromise the mail server of a Burmese human rights group.
The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded Tuesday that they were not likely to step foot in an American courtroom. But the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behavior was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the U.S. and risk arrest.