Red Alert: US accuses two Chinese hackers of stealing secrets including COVID-19 vaccine data

In a sensational turn of events which is bound to deepen fissures within the frayed bilateral ties further, the United States has now accused two hackers of stealing secrets including coronavirus vaccine data.

Two Chinese hackers working with the Ministry of State Security have been charged under Global Computer Intrusion Campaign targeting intellectual property and confidential business information including COVID-19 research.

The 11-count indictment alleges two hackers – 34-year-old Li Xiaoyu and 33-year-old DONG Jiazhi, worked with the Guangdong State Security Department (GSSD) of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), while also targeting victims worldwide for personal profit, besides working for the benefit of the MSS or other Chinese government agencies.  The hackers stole terabytes of data which comprised a sophisticated and prolific threat to US networks.

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The accused – Li and Dong – who were trained in computer applications technologies at the same Chinese university, conducted a hacking campaign lasting more than 10 years to the present, targeting companies in countries with high technology industries, including the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

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Targeted industries included, among others, high tech manufacturing, medical device, civil, and industrial engineering, business, educational, and gaming software, solar energy, pharmaceuticals and defence.

In at least one instance, hackers also tried to extort cryptocurrency from a victim by threatening to release victim’s stolen source code on the Internet. More recently, defendants probed for vulnerabilities in computer networks of companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, testing technology, and treatments.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C Demers.

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“Today’s indictment demonstrates the serious consequences the Chinese MSS and its proxies will face if they continue to deploy malicious cyber tactics to either steal what they cannot create or silence what they do not want to hear,” said FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich.

“Cybercrimes directed by the Chinese government’s intelligence services not only threaten the United States but also every other country that supports fair play, international norms, and the rule of law, and it also seriously undermines China’s desire to become a respected leader in world affairs. The FBI and our international partners will not stand idly by to this threat, and we are committed to holding the Chinese government accountable,” he added.

“The complicated nature of cyber investigations is only exacerbated when the criminal is backed by the resources of a foreign government. The nature and value of the material stolen by these hackers cannot just be measured in dollars and was indicative of being state driven. This case demonstrates the FBI’s dedication to pursuing these criminals no matter who is sanctioning their activities,” said Special Agent in Charge Raymond Duda of the FBI’s Seattle Division.

The hacking occurring in the US was first discovered on computers of Department of Energy’s Hanford Site in Eastern Washington. To conceal the data theft from victim networks and otherwise evade detection, the accused typically packaged victim data in encrypted Roshal Archive Compressed files (RAR files), changed RAR file and victim documents’ names and extensions (for instance from “.rar” to “.jpg”) and system timestamps and concealed programs and documents at innocuous-seeming locations on victim networks and in victim networks’ “recycle bins”.

The investigation was conducted jointly by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, National Security Division of the Department of Justice and FBI’s Spokane Resident Agency and San Antonio Field Office. FBI’s Cyber Division assisted in the investigation and along with  FBI’s Cyber Assistant Legal Attachés and Legal Attachés in countries around the world, provided essential support.

Assistant US Attorney James Goeke of Eastern District of Washington and Trial Attorney Scott McCulloch of National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section are prosecuting this case.

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