Mar 25, 2024 - Technology

DOJ charges seven hackers tied to Chinese government

A seal for the Department of Justice is seen on a podium ahead of a news conference.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice charged seven hackers Monday who are believed to have worked on behalf of the Chinese government's intelligence services.

Why it matters: Law enforcement officials claim the defendants targeted thousands of U.S. and international individuals and companies as part of a series of China-backed hacking operations.

  • Some of these attacks were successful, resulting in hackers compromising victims' networks, email accounts, cloud storage accounts and call records, the DOJ said in a press release.

Zoom in: The U.S. is charging the individuals with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

  • Each of the charged hackers — Ni Gaobin, Weng Ming, Cheng Feng, Peng Yaowen, Sun Xiaohui, Xiong Wang and Zhao Guangzong — are believed to be based in China, according to the DOJ.
  • The charged individuals are believed to be connected to a private Chinese hacking company that Beijing's Ministry of State Security created in 2010 as a front for its operations, per the indictment.
  • The U.S. claims the company — known as Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science & Technology Co. — sent more than 10,000 malicious emails to targets in the last 14 years, with many of these emails purporting to be from legitimate journalists, according to the DOJ.
  • Once a target opened the malicious email, information about their location, IP address and network schematics was sent back to the attackers.

Between the lines: Like other countries, China has long relied on private offensive cyber companies to either assist or carry out its operations.

  • A trove of documents leaked last month gave the world a rare glimpse inside the relationship between Beijing's government agencies and another company, i-Soon.

The big picture: The U.S. government has been increasingly declassifying intelligence about China's growing hacking prowess.

  • In January, top U.S. cyber officials warned Congress about China's willingness to hack American infrastructure to incite societal panic.
  • Last month, U.S. cyber agencies published intelligence showing that China had "persistent" access to U.S. critical infrastructure networks for years — marking a divergence from China's history of hacking primarily for espionage purposes.
  • Officials and lawmakers have also grown increasingly worried about China's ability to collect data about Americans and to use TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, to push disinformation.

Yes, but: Monday's indictments are unlikely to result in arrests since China does not have an extradition agreement with the United States.

What's next: The State Department is offering up to $10 million to anyone who has information about the charged individuals and the front company.

  • The Treasury Department also sanctioned the company and individuals.
  • The United Kingdom publicly attributed a cyberattack on the British Electoral Commission and an espionage campaign targeting U.K. lawmakers' email accounts to Chinese government hackers on Monday.
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