U.S. Charges Chinese Military with Hacking…Rest of the World Snickers

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
(photo: FBI)

By all accounts Attorney General Eric Holder held a straight face on Monday when he announced that the Department of Justice had indicted five Chinese military hackers for stealing U.S. corporate trade secrets. Given that this is the same administration that has been repeatedly criticized for allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to pry into overseas personal, government and even corporate computer systems, the announcement was greeted with skepticism, if not laughter from some critics.


The Obama administration, though, does not consider the charges a laughing matter. Officials insist the unlawful infiltration of systems belonging to American energy, metals and manufacturing industries was wrong and had to be addressed.


The five individuals charged are part of the People’s Liberation Army’s Unit 61398, which carries out cyberwarfare operations.


“The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response,” Holder said in a prepared statement. “Success in the global market place should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets. This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market.”


Apparently, however, this administration is okay with NSA hackers breaking into the computers of Brazilian businesses (oil firm Petrobras) or even Chinese ones to steal source code (networking company Huawei).


“We’ve lost any moral high ground to complain about this stuff. That’s bad,” Bruce Schneier, a cryptography expert, told Wired.


The Chinese government responded to the U.S. claims, arguing in a statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “For a long time, the U.S. has clearly conducted large-scale, organized theft, network monitoring and control activities against foreign dignitaries, corporations, and individuals.” China summoned the U.S. ambassador to lodge an official complaint, and it suspended the cyber-security discussions of the Sino-U.S. Cyber Working Group.


Wired’s Andy Greenberg noted in the wake of the indictments, NSA officials should probably avoid any overseas trips.


Sean Lawson, a professor of public policy, cybersecurity and the military at the University of Utah, said: “This could potentially open U.S. officials to similar charges, not just in China but other countries as well. Brazil could turn around and say: ‘If you start charging foreign officials for cyberespionage against companies, maybe we’ll do the same to officials at the NSA.’”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

U.S. Indictment of Chinese Hackers Could Be Awkward for the NSA (by Andy Greenberg, Wired)

With Spy Charges, U.S. Draws a Line That Few Others Recognize (by David Sanger, New York Times)

U.S. Charges Five Chinese Military Hackers for Cyber Espionage Against U.S. Corporations and a Labor Organization for Commercial Advantage (U.S. Department of Justice)

Chinese Military Unit Charged with Cyber-Espionage against U.S. Firms (by Ellen Nakashima and William Wan, Washington Post)

These are the 5 Members of the Chinese Military Charged with Cyber-espionage (by Anup Kaphle, Washington Post)


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