The US on Monday announced charges against five Chinese military personnel, accusing them of hacking computers of American companies and stealing non-public commercial information.
And in a move that is bound to elicit strong reaction — possibly even retaliatory measures — from Beijing, the US alleged those hits were authorized by the Chinese government.
It was the first time the US has charged state actors with cyber espionage, and many countries including India, which have been victims of Chinese hackers, will be watching.
“For too long, the Chinese government has blatantly sought to use cyber espionage to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned industries,” said FBI director James B. Comey.
The five alleged hackers charged belong to the shadowy Unit 61398 of the Third Department of the People’s Liberation Army, according to a grand jury in Pennsylvania state.
They targeted Westinghouse, US units of SolarWorld, US Steel, Allegheny Technologies, Alcoa and USW, a union of workers from a wide range of industries, between 2008 and 2013.
One of the five hackers is alleged to have stolen information from Westinghouse’s computer networks in 2010, at the time it was building four nuclear plants in China.
It was also negotiating some other terms of the contract, that involved transfer of technology.
Another of those hackers allegedly stole SolarWorld’s cash-flow information, and about its costs, around the time Chinese companies were found dumping cheap solar products in the US.
“Such information would have enabled a Chinese competitor to target SolarWorld’s business operations aggressively from a variety of angles,” said the US department of justice.
“This 21st century burglary has to stop,” said David Hickton. a US law officer heading the prosecution team.
India has been a frequent victim of Chinese hackers who have mostly targeted its defense entities such as the DRDO, and its embassies, stealing classified strategic information.