US accuses Chinese hackers in targeting of COVID-19 research

US accuses Chinese hackers in targeting of COVID-19 research

US accuses Chinese hackers in targeting of COVID-19 research

WASHINGTON — Hackers working with the Chinese government targeted firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus and stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world, the Justice Department said Tuesday as it announced criminal charges.

The indictment does not accuse the two Chinese defendants of actually obtaining the coronavirus research, but it does underscore the extent to which scientific innovation has been a top target for foreign governments and criminal hackers looking to know what American companies are developing during the pandemic. In this case, the hackers researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of biotech firms and diagnostic companies that were developing vaccines and testing kits and researching antiviral drugs.

The charges are the latest in a series of aggressive Trump administration actions targeting China. They come as President Donald Trump, his reelection prospects damaged by the coronavirus outbreak, has blamed China for the pandemic and as administration officials have escalated their denunciations of Beijing, including over alleged efforts to steal intellectual property through hacking.

The indictment includes trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy against the hackers, former classmates at an electrical engineering college who prosecutors say worked together for more than a decade targeting high-tech companies in more than 10 countries.

The hackers, identified as Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, stole information not only for their personal profit but also research and technology that they knew would be of value to the Chinese government, prosecutors say.

In some instances, the indictment says, they provided an officer for a Chinese intelligence service with whom they worked email accounts and passwords belonging to clergymen, dissidents and pro-democracy activists who could then be targeted. The officer gave help of his own, providing malicious software after one of the hackers struggled to compromise the mail server of a Burmese human rights group.

The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded Tuesday that they were not likely to step foot in an American courtroom. But the indictment carries important symbolic and deterrence value for the Justice Department, which decided that publicly calling out the behaviour was more worthwhile than waiting for the unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the U.S. and risk arrest.

The hacking began more than 10 years ago, with targets including pharmaceutical, solar and medical device companies but also political dissidents, activists and clergy in the United States, China and Hong Kong, federal authorities said.

The charges were brought as Trump administration officials, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Attorney General William Barr, have delivered public warnings about what they say are Chinese government efforts to use hacking to steal trade secrets for Beijing’s financial benefit and to covertly influence American policy.

The hacking is part of what Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, described as a sweeping effort to “rob, replicate and replace” strategy for technological development.

In addition, he said, “China is providing a safe haven for criminal hackers who, as in this case, are hacking in part for their own personal gain but willing to help the state — and on call to do so.”

The criminal charges are the first from the Justice Department accusing foreign hackers of targeting innovation related to the coronavirus, though U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have warned for months about those efforts.

Last week, for instance, authorities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom accused a hacking group with links to Russian intelligence of trying to target research on the disease, which has killed more than 140,000 people in the United States and more than 600,000 worldwide, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The indictment describes multiple efforts by the hackers to snoop on companies engaged in coronavirus-related research, though it does not accuse them of success in any theft.

Prosecutors say Li in January conducted reconnaissance on the computer network of a Massachusetts biotech firm known to be researching a potential vaccine, and searched for vulnerabilities on the network of a Maryland firm less than a week after the company said it was conducting similar scientific work.

Li also probed the networks of a California diagnostics company involved in developing testing kits, and a biotech firm from the same state that was researching antiviral drugs.

Hacking of vaccine information slows down research as the institution must scramble not only to fix the breach but also to ensure the data it has accumulated has not been altered, Demers said.

“Once someone is in your system, they can not only take the data, they can manipulate the data,” Demers said. “We do worry to that extent that there could be a slowdown in the research efforts of that particular institution.”

The indictment was returned earlier this month in federal court in the Eastern District of Washington, where the hacking outlined by prosecutors was first discovered at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site.

“If it can occur there, we all must know that it can occur anywhere,” U.S. Attorney William Hyslop said of his district.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not directly respond to the indictment but pointed to remarks made last week by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, who described China as the victim of “groundless speculations” but also a country whose scientific prowess means it does not need to “secure an edge by theft.”

Ben Buchanan, a Georgetown University professor and author of “The Hacker and the State,” said that though the U.S. has made clear its views on what kinds of economic espionage are permitted and not permitted, it is unclear where it draws the line on espionage related to the coronavirus or what kind of espionage the U.S. might conduct.

He said he was not sure that this indictment, without other meaningful consequences, would get China to cease its activities.

“The upside of spying in this way is simply too high for many governments to pass up,” Buchanan said in an email.

_____

Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Police officers and their dogs undergo training at the RCMP Police Dog Services training centre in Innisfail, Alta., on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Mounties say they are searching for an armed and dangerous man near a provincial park in northern Alberta who is believed to have shot and killed a service dog during a police chase. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
RCMP search for armed man in northern Alberta after police dog shot and killed

Cpl. Deanna Fontaine says a police service dog named Jago was shot during the pursuit

Alberta now has 2,336 active cases of COVID-19, with 237 people in hospital, including 58 in intensive care. (Black Press file photo)
Red Deer down to 73 active cases of COVID-19, lowest since early November

The Central zone has 253 active cases of the virus

The Sylvan Lake Gulls show off the home jerseys (white) and their way jerseys at the Gulls Media Day on June 17, before the season opener. Following the media day, the team took to the field for their first practise. (Photo by Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News)
Sylvan Lake Gulls ready to throw first pitch as construction continues

The Gulls inaugural season kicks off June 18 with a game against the Edmonton Prospects

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

The federal government says it wants to ban most flavoured vaping products in a bid to reduce their appeal to youth. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Craig Mitchelldyer
Health Canada proposes ban on most vaping flavours it says appeal to youth

If implemented, the regulations would restrict all e-cigarette flavours except tobacco, mint and menthol

The Montreal Police logo is seen in Montreal on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Some Quebec politicians are calling for an investigation after a video was released that appears to show a Montreal police officer with his leg on a young Black man’s neck during an arrest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Probe called for after video appearing to show Montreal officer’s knee on Black youth’s neck

Politicians call for investigation after clip evokes memories of George Floyd incident

Thousands of protesters make their way through the downtown core during a Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa, Friday June 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
MPs’ study of systemic racism in policing concludes RCMP needs new model

Chair of the House public safety committee says it’s time for a reckoning on ‘quasi-military’ structure

A case filled with packages of boneless chicken breasts is shown in a grocery store Sunday, May 10, 2020, in southeast Denver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-David Zalubowski
One million chickens euthanized during labour dispute at Quebec slaughterhouse

Premier says waste amounts to 13 per cent of the province’s chicken production thrown in the garbage

A section of the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies is seen west of Cochrane, Alta., Thursday, June 17, 2021. A joint federal-provincial review has denied an application for an open-pit coal mine in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, saying its impacts on the environment and Indigenous rights aren’t worth the economic benefits it would bring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Panel says Grassy Mountain coal mine in Alberta Rockies not in public interest

Public hearings on the project in southern Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass region were held last fall

Most Read