The US has charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into five US companies and a labour union to steal trade secrets.
Those charged are members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Shanghai-based Unit 61398, which was identified as a dedicated and prolific hacking unit by US security firm Mandiant in 2013.
The firm, which has since been acquired by Fire Eye, published a report that linked the unit to most of significant attacks on US federal agencies and companies under investigation.
The unit is suspected of hacking into 141 computers across 20 industries to steal hundreds of terabytes of data.
The charges are the first to be made by the US against state actors for infiltrating commercial targets by cyber means, according to the BBC.
The targets of the alleged cyber espionage have been identified as Westinghouse Electric, US Steel, Alcoa Inc, Allegheny Technologies, SolarWorld and the US Steelworkers Union.
The FBI said the hacking activities of the accused from 2006 to 2014 had caused “significant losses” at the five companies and probably many more besides.
The stolen documents allegedly include solar panel pricing strategies and designs for components of a nuclear plant.
The indictment alleges that one Chinese state-owned enterprise involved in trade litigation against some of the US target companies hired the unit to build a secret database to hold corporate intelligence, according to IDG News.
US attorney general Eric Holder said the alleged hacking had been conducted to advantage state-owned companies and other interests in China, at the expense of businesses in the US.
He said the US government rejected economic espionage as a trade tactic.
“As President Obama has said on numerous occasions, we do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies, or US commercial sectors,” Holder said.
Holder attempted to distinguish between economic and security surveillance in a press conference, reports the Guardian.
“All nations are engaged in intelligence gathering,” he said, but the current indictment involves “a state-sponsored entity, state-sponsored individuals, using intelligence tools to gain commercial advantages, and that is what makes this case different.”
In response to the charges, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the allegations were “made up” and would “damage Sino-American co-operation and mutual trust”.
“China is a staunch defender of network security, and the Chinese government, military and associated personnel have never engaged in online theft of trade secrets,” he said.
China has already announced the suspension of co-operation with the US on an internet working group and made counter claims that the US hacked into Chinese systems using phishing attacks.
A report issued by China’s state news agency claims that in the past two months, US-based servers took control of about 1.2 million Chinese computers, resulting in the stealing of trade secrets and fraud.
The US State Department said the US can still have a constructive relationship with China, but the White House has reportedly expressed concern over the challenge of cooperating on cybersecurity issues.
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