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

Singaporean national pleads guilty to serving as Chinese government agent

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The FBI has charged an individual with serving as an illegal agent of the Chinese government. Jun Wei Yeo pled guilty to all charges on July 24 in a federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Why it matters: The case comes amid a major Justice Department initiative to crack down on what it describes as widespread Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft in the U.S.

Twitter says hackers accessed DMs during mass attack

Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Twitter announced that hackers were able to access the direct messages of 36 of 130 targeted accounts, including an elected official in the Netherlands, as part of a mass hack that targeted notable figures on July 15.

Why it matters: Wednesday's announcement shows that hackers retrieved sensitive information from more than eight accounts that had their full information downloaded. Twitter said it is still unaware whether more accounts’ direct messages were accessed.

  • Twitter declined to comment to Axios on how many verified users were among the 36 people whose messages were accessed. It previously said no verified accounts were among those that had their full information downloaded.

China's consulates do a lot more than spy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Every country spies. And many countries — including the U.S. — use their diplomatic outposts to do it. But for years, China has used its embassies and consulates to do far more than that.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's recent hardline stance against China's illicit consular activities is a public acknowledgment of real problems, but it comes at a time when U.S.-China relations are already dangerously tense.