WASHINGTON - Five Chinese military officers have been indicted by US Department of Justice on charges of corporate cyber spying and stealing trade secrets of American companies in the toughest action taken so far by Washington.
China has described the US accusations against its military personnel in America as "made up" . It stated that the charges would damage trust between the two nations.
The Chinese foreign ministry said it would suspend the activities of the Sino-U.S. Internet working group, reported Reuters.
"The threat is from members of unit 61398 of the Chinese military, who have targeted the U.S. private sector for commercial advantage. We allege that members of unit 61398 conspired to hack into computers of six U.S. victims to steal information that would provide an economic advantage to the victims' competitors, including Chinese state-owned enterprises," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin speaking at press conference.
Carlin stated that in the past, when the department brought concerns such as these to the notice of the Chinese government officials, "they responded by publicly challenging us to provide hard evidence of their hacking that could stand up in court".
Citing examples, DoJ stated that right about the time SolarWorld was rapidly losing its market share to Chinese competitors that were pricing exports well below costs, these hackers were stealing cost, pricing, and strategy information from SolarWorld's computers.
And while Westinghouse was negotiating with a Chinese state-owned enterprise over the construction of nuclear power plants, the hackers stole trade secret designs for components of those plants.
"For the first time, we are exposing the faces and names behind the keyboards in Shanghai used to steal from American businesses. This indictment describes, with particularity, specific actions on specific days by specific actors to use their computers to steal information from across our economy," Carlin added.
This is the first time that the US has filed charges against specific officials of foreign governments, accusing them of corporate cyber spying.
"When a foreign nation uses military or intelligence resources and tools against an American executive or corporation to obtain trade secrets or sensitive business information for the benefit of its state-owned companies, we must say, 'enough is enough'," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the press conference.
Besides Westinghouse and U.S. subsidiaries of SolarWorld, a German company, Holder said Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, the United Steel Workers Union and U.S. Steel were among the companies and institutions targeted by Chinese officials in Pittsburg area.
Holder alleged that in some cases the five Chinese officers stole trade secrets and in other cases they stole "sensitive, internal communications" that provided Chinese companies with valuable information on the strategies or vulnerabilities of U.S. competitors that the Chinese were negotiating with.
Reuters reported that U.S. authorities wouldn't be able to arrest those indicted as Beijing would not hand them over. Still, the move would prevent the individuals from traveling to the United States or other countries that have an extradition agreement with the United States.
Stewart Baker, a former NSA attorney, told Reuters the hackers named in the indictments might have trouble getting jobs in China's private sector when they move on from employment with the People's Liberation Army.
"In the long run, it could even hurt your employability in China, because U.S. government is going to look askance at Chinese firms that hire former cyber spies," said Baker, a partner with Steptoe and Johnson LLP.