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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

East Central Express also offers wedding or event shuttle services and tours of the Rocky Mountains. Photo courtesy of East Central Express.
On-demand bus service will now stop in Lacombe

As the winter months arrive, Rob Duncan expects demand for his bus and taxi services to grow

The influenza vaccine will be available at no cost starting Monday in Alberta. “The more that we can avoid influenza-related tests, emergency visits and hospitalizations, the stronger our system will be to support those with COVID-19 and all other health needs," says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Hinshaw urges Albertans to get flu shot as COVID cases jump by 332

Alberta’s central zone now has 132 active COVID-19 cases

A new biorefinery that will turn organic waste into natural energy was announced in Lacombe on Oct. 15. From left to right: Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta, Grant Creasey, Mayor of the City of Lacombe, Ron Orr, MLA for Lacombe-Ponoka, Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks and Chris Thrall, President and CEO of BioRefinex Canada Inc. (Photo Courtesey of The City of Lacombe)
Lacombe to become world’s first site for a new type of clean energy facility

A biorefinery will be built in 2021 creating temporary and full-time jobs, the province announced.

In this photo provided by Shannon Kiss, smoke from the CalWood Fire billows, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, as seen from Gunbarrel, Colo. (Shannon Kiss via AP)
‘First guys out:’ Western Canadian air tanker fleet busy despite drop in wildfires

CEO believes wildfires have become more dangerous in recent years as people live closer to where they start

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Executive Director of Agape Kate Halas (left) receives $1000 from Sgt. Eric Christensen (right) on behalf of Agape. Photo/ Shaela Dansereau.
Former Wetaskiwin Peace Officer wins provincial award; gives back to Wetaskiwin community

Eric Christensen has won the Alberta Association of Community Peace Officers Award of Excellence.

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Employee Sophia Lovink shows off a bag of merchandise in Toronto on Thursday, June 11, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Canada gets C-average grade on 2nd year of cannabis legalization

Cannabis Council of Canada releases report card on federal government and legalization

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Restrictions on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States are being extended until at least Nov. 21. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
Non-essential travel restrictions at Canada-U.S. border extended to at least Nov. 21

The restrictions do not apply to those providing essential services in either country

(The Canadian Perss)
Banff wolves have lower survival rate due to hunting, trapping outside park boundary

Researchers looked at 72 radio-collared wolves in the national park from 1987 to August 2019

Most Read