Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials on Monday brought cyber espionage charges against five members of the Chinese military, the first criminal accusations against officials in another country.
The People’s Liberation Army officials are accused of illegally downloading designs for a nuclear power plant and the strategic plans of U.S. solar and steel firms in order to gain economic advantages for Chinese state-owned enterprises. In a press release, Holder claimed that the alleged espionage “demands an aggressive response.”
At a press conference convened Monday, executive director of the FBI Robert Anderson provided just that, stating, “if you’re going to attack Americans, whether for criminal or national security purposes, we are going to hold you accountable no matter what country you live in.” This marks the first time the U.S. has charged a state actor with cyber-espionage. While it is uncertain how the case will proceed, Holder made it clear that “it is our hope to have these people stand before an American jury and face justice.”
According to the indictment, all five PLA members are “officers of the [People’s Republic of China]’s Third Department of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army (3PLA), Second Bureau, Third Office, Military Unit Cover Designator (MUCD) 61398, at some point during the investigation.” From that placement, they engaged, according to the Justice Department, in such crimes as theft of trade secrets, aggravated identity theft, and economic espionage. As U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania said in revealing the charges, “the important message is that cyber theft impacts real people in real and painful ways.”
Today’s allegations come as the result of rising tensions between the U.S. and China over cyber-security. In March, the German paper Der Spiegel reported that the U.S. spied on former Chinese president Hu Jintao and the Chinese Trade Ministry. Additionally, from the Chinese side, the high tech American defense contractor QinetiQ has accused Chinese officials of infiltrating their computer systems and stealing valuable technological secrets, and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times also reported that they were victims of Chinese hackers.
Both governments have repeatedly denied involvement in spying and claimed allegations lack solid evidence. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin elaborated, “in the past, when we brought concerns such as these to Chinese government officials, they responded by publicly challenging us to provide hard evidence of their hacking that could stand up in court. Well today we are.” According to Anderson, “diplomatic efforts and public exposure has failed to curtail these activities. So we have taken it to the next step.” The Justice Department’s decision to press charges against Chinese officials could in fact wind up escalating the dispute and has the potential to put significant strain on diplomatic ties between China and the United States.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden backs up Chinese claims, alleging that the U.S. has engaged in extensive spying on the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, as part of an operation known as “Shotgiant.” In a piece published by the New York Times that discloses goals of the operation, NSA officials discuss Huawei’s technology, stating “we want to make sure that we know how to exploit these products” in order to “gain access to networks of interest.” However, the NSA continues to deny involvement in industrial espionage.
Given Snowden’s accusations, Holder will likely be forced to defend his stated belief that “success in the international marketplace should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets.” American officials may also face similar charges of cyber-espionage from China in retaliation. Already, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang has slammed the indictments as “based on fabricated facts,” adding that that the move to press charges “grossly violates the basic norms governing international relations and jeopardizes China-US cooperation and mutual trust.” Gang also announced that in light of the U.S. accusations, Beijing was suspending its activities in the China-U.S. Cyber Working Group.
Will Freeman is an intern at Think Progress