Federal prosecutors allege the pair hacked into corporations and research institutions on behalf of the Chinese government.
Two Chinese nationals have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to a widespread hacking effort that included attacks on computer networks of companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.
The indictment alleges Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazhi, 33, were working with the Ministry of State Security and other agencies of the Chinese government to steal intellectual property over a period of more than 10 years, according to the press release from the Justice Department. Li and Dong each face 11 charges including conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets as well as seven counts of aggravated identity theft.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in the press release.
Demers called the Chinese Communist party’s desire for intellectual property “insatiable” and said that desire includes information on COVID-19 vaccines. News of this indictment comes days after the National Security Agency announced Russian hackers are attempting to steal COVID-19 research.
The indictment, which came down from the Eastern District court in Washington state, where the hack was first discovered, accuses Li and Dong of working with a MSS officer assigned to the Guangdong State Security Department to steal data through computer fraud from corporations and research institutions.
These corporations included defense contractors, according to the indictment. The document alleges Li and Dong stole information including details regarding military satellite programs and military wireless networks and communication systems.
China’s efforts to steal intellectual property have long been a thorn in the side of U.S. policymakers and security experts. In a speech last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr warned China will do anything to win the artificial intelligence race, and that may include illegal methods.
Tensions with China have been heightened as of late by security concerns related to telecom giant Huawei and TikTok, the video application beloved by teenagers and owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance. In March, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced legislation that would prohibit any federal employee from using or downloading TikTok on devices issued by the U.S. government.
FBI Director Christopher Wray in early July said economic espionage cases linked to China have increased by 1,300% over the past decade. Li and Dong may have been a part of that trend—according to the indictment, their alleged illegal hacking activities began in September 2009 and may have lasted through July 7 of this year, when the indictment was filed.