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US Charges 2 Chinese Nationals in Global Hacking Campaign

FILE - The U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building is seen in Washington, July 13, 2018.
FILE - The U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building is seen in Washington, July 13, 2018.

Two Chinese nationals working with China’s state security ministry have been charged with a decade-long global campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information at hundreds of entities, including COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research conducted by U.S. firms.

Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazhi, 33, were charged in an 11-count indictment unsealed on Tuesday, marking the first time alleged Chinese hackers have been indicted for the “blended threat” of working for the Chinese government while also targeting victims for personal gain.

“It is the first time we're announcing charges that present what we call this blended threat of criminal hackers also doing state sponsored activities and being allowed to do their criminal activities and profit off those criminal activities by the state because they can be on call to state to do this work as well,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers.

Li and Dong, who allegedly studied computer applications technologies at the same Chinese university, remain at large. No officials of China’s Ministry of State Security involved in the campaign were charged.

Officials say the hacking campaign began in 2009 and continued through early July when the two men were indicted. Targeted businesses included high-tech companies in the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, and Britain, according to the indictment. In recent months, as U.S. biotech firms began developing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, the hackers unsuccessfully sought to target their research. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

In addition to attacking businesses, the alleged hackers also infiltrated the online accounts of non-profits as well as dissidents, clergy and rights activists in the United States, China and other countries, underscoring their services to the Chinese government, according to Demers.

“These intrusions are yet another example of China’s brazen willingness to engage in theft through computer intrusions contrary to their international commitments,” Demers said.

The indictment comes as U.S. officials raise the alarm about Chinese efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property as part of an effort to supplant the United States as the world’s only superpower.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, on July 7, called China’s economic espionage the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality.”

Almost half of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases are related to China, Wray said, adding that the bureau is adding a new counterintelligence case related to China every 10 hours.

Attorney General William Barr said on Thursday that China is engaged in an “economic blitzkrieg” against the United States, accusing U.S. businesses of bowing to Chinese pressure in pursuit of profit.