The charges were included in an indictment issued earlier this month and unsealed in federal court in Spokane, Wash. On Tuesday. They represent the first criminal charges against foreign hackers continuing coronavirus research as the pandemic continues to rage across the world.
One of the hackers, Li Xiaoyu, reportedly performed electronic reconnaissance on at least four US-based companies that were publicly known to be working on coronavirus projects.
According to the indictment, in late January, Li searched for vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech companies in Maryland and Massachusetts that were researching coronavirus vaccines. The following month, he targeted a California company that had just announced that it was looking for antiviral drugs to treat the virus. In May, Li took on a California diagnostic company that was developing coronavirus test kits.
Although the indictment does not specify whether the hackers worked at the behest of the Chinese government as they targeted the coronavirus projects, senior national security officials have warned of the Chinese government’s attempts of stealing coronavirus research from U.S. institutions for months.
U.S., British and Canadian officials also said last week that Russian cyberactors were targeting organizations involved in the development of coronavirus vaccines.
The indictment alleges Li and Dong worked alongside a Chinese intelligence officer from a Guangdong outpost of the country’s State Security Ministry in other cases, including theft personal information of Chinese dissidents.
The hackers provided the MSS official with email accounts and passwords belonging to a community organizer in Hong Kong, the pastor of a Christian church in China and a dissident and former protester in Tiananmen Square, according to the. indictment.
Much of the information stolen by hackers from companies around the world – including hundreds of victims, Justice Department officials said – also matched areas that the Chinese government has said it wants to advance.
The Trump administration has blasted the Chinese government for a campaign of economic espionage and intellectual property theft to achieve these goals, and in the indictment Li and Dong are accused of stealing information about programs from military satellites and high power microwave and laser systems to defense. entrepreneurs, among other defense technologies.
The indictment also marks the first time the United States has accused the Chinese government of supporting hackers as they carry out their own work unrelated to government missions.
“China has now taken its place alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea in this shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cybercriminals in return for these on-call criminals for the benefit of the State, ”said Demers.