US charges 5 Chinese citizens in global hacking campaign

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Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael R. Sherwin speaks, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 at the Justice Department in Washington. The Justice Department has charged five Chinese citizens with hacks targeting more than 100 companies and institutions in the United States and abroad, including social media and video game companies as well as universities and telecommunications providers. Officials announced the prosecution on Wednesday. (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has charged five Chinese citizens with hacks targeting more than 100 companies and institutions in the United States and abroad, including social media and video game companies as well as universities and telecommunications providers, officials said Wednesday.

The five defendants remain fugitives, but prosecutors say two Malaysian businessmen charged with conspiring with the alleged hackers to profit off the attacks on the billion-dollar video game industry were arrested in Malaysia this week and now face extradition proceedings.

The indictments are part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to call out cybercrimes by China. In July, prosecutors accused hackers of working with the Chinese government to target companies developing vaccines for the coronavirus and of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world.

Though those allegations were tailored to the pandemic, the charges announced Wednesday — and the range of victims identified — were significantly broader and involved attacks done both for monetary gain but also more conventional espionage purposes.

In unsealing three related indictments, officials laid out a wide-ranging hacking scheme targeting a variety of business sectors and academia and carried out by a China-based group known as APT41. That group has been tracked over the last year by the cybersecurity firm Mandiant Threat Intelligence, which described the hackers as prolific and successful at blending criminal and espionage operations.

The hackers relied on a series of tactics, including attacks in which they managed to compromise the networks of software providers, modify the code and conduct further attacks on the companies' customers.

The Justice Department did not directly link the hackers to the Chinese government. But officials said the hackers were probably serving as proxies for Beijing because some of the targets, including pro-democracy activists and students at a Taiwan university, were in line with government interests and didn't appear to be about scoring a profit.

“A hacker for profit is not going to hack a pro-democracy group,” said acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin of the District of Columbia, where the cases were filed. Those targets, including some that bear the “hallmark” of conventional espionage, point to the conclusion that the hackers had at least an indirect connection with the government, Sherwin said.