The U.S. Department of Justice has charged two Chinese hackers with trying to steal coronavirus research as part of a wider campaign targeting trade secrets, a move likely to escalate U.S. tensions with China.
A federal grand jury in Spokane, Washington, returned an 11-count indictment against the two men, Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, alleging that in many cases they worked on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security and other government agencies.
The DOJ charged that the two hackers were part of a decade-long “sweeping global computer intrusion campaign” that targeted sensitive information from businesses and government agencies.
The long-running hacking campaign infiltrated hundreds of companies, NGOs and human rights activists in countries with high-technology industries, the DOJ said in a press release, adding “The hackers stole terabytes of data which comprised a sophisticated and prolific threat to U.S. networks.”
More recently, the defendants “probed for vulnerabilities in computer networks of companies developing COVID-19 vaccines,” including trying to steal research from at least three U.S. firms—though the DOJ did not indicate whether their attempts had been successful.
The two defendants are not in custody, and are unlikely to step foot in an American courtroom, the DOJ confirmed, but the indictment comes as a symbolic move to deter further hacking attempts from foreign nationals and governments.
While the attempts represent a growing trend in which state-backed hackers have been gathering intelligence related to coronavirus and a possible treatment, this is believed to be the first time the U.S. government has charged foreign hackers specifically for targeting coronavirus research, per the Associated Press.
“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement.
What to watch for
The indictment against the Chinese hackers threatens to further escalate U.S.-China tensions. The Trump administration has repeatedly clashed in recent months with Chinese officials over issues such as Hong Kong’s autonomy, the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and intellectual property related to 5G technology. What’s more, President Trump announced earlier this month that he isn’t even considering a phase two trade deal with China, saying that the relationship between the two countries has been “severely damaged” by the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyberattacks related to the coronavirus have become increasingly common in recent months. The charges against Xiaoyu and Jiazhi come as Trump administration officials—including Attorney General William Barr and national security advisor Robert O’Brien—ramp up their rhetoric against what they say are Chinese government efforts to steal trade secrets through hacking. Indeed, Western intelligence agencies have for months warned about the possibility of more cyberattacks related to coronavirus research: Just last week, authorities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom accused hackers with links to Russia of trying to target coronavirus research. Earlier this year, biotech firm Gilead Sciences, whose antiviral remdesivir is one of few drugs that’s been proven effective in treating Covid-19, was also targeted by Iranian-linked hackers.