On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charging of espionage against five Chinese hackers for allegedly stealing trade secrets from American companies to gain economic advantage. This marks the first-ever cyber, economic espionage case between two nations.
Chinese government officials responded to the announcement, saying the accusations of espionage were both “absurd and ungrounded.” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman for China, Qin Gang, said the nation will halt its participation in the China-US Cyber Working Group, a bi-lateral organization founded last summer meant to ease accusations and problems related to internet theft.
The five men accused, Sun Kailiang, Wang Dong, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu and Gu Chunhui, had their names publicly announced and faces printed in Western media.
“This 21st century burglary [must] stop,” said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where many of the affected companies are based.
Alcoa, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel Corp., the United Steel Workers Union and Allegheny Technologies all allegedly had trade secrets stolen. Law enforcement officials claim the crimes have led to a direct loss of American jobs, the closing of a Texas industrial plant, stolen nuclear power plant designs and the stolen pricing information from a solar panel firm.
Some have speculated, though, that China feels it is also the victim of cyber crime. On June 6 of last year, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked official documents which proved the United States spied on Chinese telecommunication companies, a university and the owner of the largest fiber-optic submarine cable network in Beijing.
Chinese officials have used Snowden’s revelations to deflect blame of cyber espionage, arguing that spying on national communications is no different than hacking into the computers of U.S. companies.
“China doesn’t see [the] difference between the two types of espionage,” said David Fidler, an Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research Fellow. “For [them], economic security is national security.”
While the announcement to charge Chinese hackers for espionage was recent, U.S. officials have known of these crimes for quite some time. According to Newsweek, the last two presidential administrations both had concerns which were solidified by a classified investigation into Chinese hacking.
The report in 2009 confirmed the hacking of every U.S. corporate computer studied in the investigation as well as all the examined computer systems used by state and federal agencies. For fear of strained relations with Beijing, there was little meaningful confrontation.
Some believe the legal action taken against these hackers, many of whom are connected to the People’s Liberation Army, will be a wake up call for China, but not in the way most expect. “The U.S. government understands that the [chances] of successfully prosecuting…these individuals is effectively [nothing],” said Fidler.
For those accused to be prosecuted, the U.S. would need cooperation from Chinese officials, which Fidler said would never happen. Still, many feel the simple act of confrontation will help at least scale back the problem.
James Andrew Lewis, a director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the announcement a “good first step.” According to Lewis, similar action has led other nations like Russia and France to backtrack on cyber crime.
While China has dismissed the charges of hacking, the announcement comes as a strong stance from the U.S. government against cyber espionage.
By Erin P. Friar