US officials say two Chinese citizens acting on behalf of their country’s main intelligence agency carried out an extensive hacking campaign to steal data from government agencies and companies in the United States and nearly a dozen other countries.
The two, identified as Zhu Hua and Zhang Jianguo, worked in China to hack into computers to steal intellectual property and confidential business and technological data, according to an indictment, unsealed on Thursday.
US authorities said the two worked in association with the Chinese ministry of state security.
Hacking targets included the US Navy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and companies involved aviation, space and satellite technology, the indictment said.
All told, prosecutors say, the alleged hackers stole “hundreds of gigabytes” of data, breaching computers of more than 45 entities in 12 states. They are not in custody and the US does not have an extradition treaty with China.
“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.
The companies targeted by China were a “who’s who” of US businesses, Wray said.
The US Justice Department accused China of breaking a 2015 pact to curb cyber espionage for corporate purposes.
In an operation coordinated with US allies in Europe and Asia, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the inditement of the duo aimed to rebuff “China’s economic aggression”.
“We want China to cease its illegal cyber activities,” Rosenstein said.
On Thursday, the UK said it was joining allies in holding the Chinese government responsible for the global hacking campaign.
“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 statement said.
The indictments came amid heightened tensions over trade, hacking and geopolitical issues between Washington and Beijing.
On October 30, the US indicted 10 Chinese nationals, including two intelligence officers, over a five-year scheme to steal engine technology from US and French aerospace firms by hacking into their computers.
Earlier that month, the Department of Justice obtained the unprecedented extradition of a senior Chinese intelligence official from Belgium to stand trial in the US for running the alleged state-sponsored effort to steal US aviation industry secrets.
In early December, Canada arrested an executive of China’s leading Huawei telecommunications company at Washington’s request.
The US plans to charge her with fraud charges related to sanctions-breaking business dealings with Iran.
Since then, China has detained three Canadians, in an apparent bid to pressure Ottawa into fully releasing the Huawei executive, who is now out on bail.
And, according to reports, US officials believe Chinese government-linked hackers were behind the theft of data on some 500 million guests of hotel giant Marriott, first reported on November 30.