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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A federal grand jury has returned an 11-count indictment against two Chinese hackers for a "sweeping global computer intrusion campaign" that began over 10 years ago and recently targeted companies developing coronavirus vaccines and treatments, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: It's believed to be the first time the U.S. government has charged foreign hackers with targeting coronavirus research, according to AP.

  • It's also the first time the Justice Department has brought charges against criminal hackers for activity done for their personal gain and for state-sponsored attacks, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said at a press conference.

The big picture: Intelligence officials have been warning of virus-related cyber intrusions for months.

Details: The Chinese hackers allegedly targeted robotics, aircraft and marine engineering, clean energy engineering, biotechnology, advanced rail technology, non-governmental organizations, human rights activists in the U.S., China and Hong Kong, as well as vaccine and testing development for the coronavirus, the Justice Department said.

  • In January 2020, hackers are alleged to have done reconnaissance on a Massachusetts firm conducting research on a coronavirus vaccine.
  • In February, a separate California business working on antiviral drugs was invaded, according to DOJ.
  • Most recently, the Chinese hackers sought vulnerabilities in a California firm working on diagnostic research for COVID test kits on May 12.

The bottom line: The Justice Department did not allege that the hackers succeeded in stealing coronavirus research, but officials pointed out that attempted hacks could still slow down research.

  • The DOJ said that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade secrets, intellectual property and other information was stolen over the decade-long hacking campaign.

What they're saying:

“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research.
— Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers

Read the indictment via DocumentCloud.

Go deeper

FBI arrests 5 alleged agents of Chinese government

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The FBI charged eight people on Wednesday for acting as Chinese agents and said the defendants — five of whom were arrested — stalked and harassed U.S. citizens in an attempt to get them to return to China.

Why it matters: These are the first charges of their kind, FBI director Christopher Wray said at a Wednesday press briefing. The charges include conspiring to violate law on interstate stalking on behalf of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

What the 2020 election means for science

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The 2020 presidential election presents two stark paths for the direction of future-focused scientific research.

Why it matters: Science is a long game, with today's breakthroughs often stemming from research carried out decades ago, often with government help. That means the person who occupies the White House over the next four years will help shape the state of technology for decades into the future.

How overhyping became an election meddling tool

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As online platforms and intelligence officials get more sophisticated about detecting and stamping out election meddling campaigns, bad actors are increasingly seeing the appeal of instead exaggerating their own interference capabilities to shake Americans' confidence in democracy.

Why it matters: It doesn't take a sophisticated operation to sow seeds of doubt in an already fractious and factionalized U.S. Russia proved that in 2016, and fresh schemes aimed at the 2020 election may already be proving it anew.

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