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U.S. accuses Chinese nationals of hacking spree for COVID-19 data, defense secrets

TechnologyJul 21, 2020 09:10PM ET
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2/2 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The flags of China, U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party are displayed in a flag stall at the Yiwu Wholesale Market in Yiwu 2/2

By Raphael Satter and Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday indicted two Chinese nationals over their role in what the agency called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

U.S. authorities said Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi stole terabytes of weapons designs, drug information, software source code, and personal data from targets that included dissidents and Chinese opposition figures. They were contractors for the Chinese government, rather than full-fledged spies, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said at a virtual press conference the hackings showed China "is willing to turn a blind eye to prolific criminal hackers operating within its borders."

"In this manner, China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provides safe haven for cybercriminals in exchange for those criminals being on call for the benefit of the state."

Messages left with several accounts registered under Li's digital alias, oro0lxy, were not immediately returned. Contact details for Dong were not immediately available.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington referred Reuters to recent Chinese Foreign Ministry comments that "China has long been a major victim of cyber thefts and attacks" and its officials "firmly oppose and fight" such activities.

The indictment mostly did not name any companies or individual targets, but U.S. Attorney William Hyslop, who spoke alongside Demers, cited "hundreds and hundreds of victims in the United States and worldwide." Officials said the probe was triggered when the hackers broke into a network belonging to the Hanford Site, a decommissioned U.S. nuclear complex in eastern Washington state, in 2015.

Li and Dong were "one of the most prolific group of hackers we've investigated," said FBI Special Agent Raymond Duda, who heads the agency's Seattle field office.

A July 7 indictment made public on Tuesday alleges that Li and Dong were contractors for China's Ministry of State Security, or MSS, a comparable agency to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The MSS, prosecutors said, supplied the hackers with information into critical software vulnerabilities to penetrate targets and collect intelligence. Targets included Hong Kong protesters, the office of the Dalai Lama and a Chinese Christian non-profit.

As early as Jan. 27, as the coronavirus outbreak was coming into focus, the hackers were trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research of an unidentified Massachusetts biotech firm, the indictment said.

It is unclear whether anything was stolen but one expert said the allegation shows the "extremely high value" that governments such as China placed on COVID-related research.

"It is a fundamental threat to all governments around the world and we expect information relating to treatments and vaccines to be targeted by multiple cyber espionage sponsors," said Ben Read, a senior analyst at cybersecurity company FireEye (NASDAQ:FEYE).

He noted that the Chinese government had long relied on contractors for its cyberspying operations.

"Using these freelancers allows the government to access a wider array of talent, while also providing some deniability in conducting these operations," Read said.

U.S. accuses Chinese nationals of hacking spree for COVID-19 data, defense secrets
 

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Comments (20)
Luke Aye
Luke Aye Jul 21, 2020 11:30PM ET
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This is all about ethics. Not about security.
Hunt Richardson
Hunt Richardson Jul 21, 2020 10:59PM ET
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we do the same thing to them and they cry about it too
Wayne Ng
Wayne Ng Jul 21, 2020 10:35PM ET
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Note, the fact is that US is no:1 in all aspects including IT, yet it says so often being hacked. Being supreme US should well know to tackle and fight back instead of crying like a baby.
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun Jul 21, 2020 9:55PM ET
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Too many gives away user names n pass words
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun Jul 21, 2020 9:55PM ET
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By clicking on fake links
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun Jul 21, 2020 9:55PM ET
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This app is #. I cant write a truthful phrase.
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun Jul 21, 2020 9:51PM ET
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Beef up security then.
Jim Hernandez
Jim Hernandez Jul 21, 2020 9:45PM ET
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Holly, when your personal data gets hacked, bank accounts drained, ss info sold to an illegal alien collectingon your behalf, and when you don't have the police to call on because the police have been defunded, your home invaded and watch helplessly because all legal guns have been confiscated, don't cry to anyone about it.
Johnson Gray
Johnson Gray Jul 21, 2020 9:15PM ET
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Why can't America prove any of this?
Vv Pp
Vv Pp Jul 21, 2020 7:45PM ET
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keep not wearing masks against the vir(US) -> natural selection
David David
David9 Jul 21, 2020 7:13PM ET
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From Ray Dalio's recent The Changing World Order..."Because spending on the military takes government money away from spending on social programs, and because military technologies go hand in hand with private sector technologies, the biggest risk for the leading powers is that they lose the economic and technology races over time." This is clearly what is happening...US spends too much on military so now we are losing the economic and technology race with China, so now playing the weak hand to block China.
David David
David9 Jul 21, 2020 7:13PM ET
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Ray Dalio is a billionaire hedge fund manager.
Buzzy Jefferson
Buzzy Jefferson Jul 21, 2020 7:13PM ET
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David David  Never heard of him.
Luke Aye
Luke Aye Jul 21, 2020 6:39PM ET
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So thieves want to become world no 1 super power.... wow
Jim Robertson
Jim Robertson Jul 21, 2020 5:55PM ET
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China , won't open access to Wuhan, but they will ethically hack your data, and steal your proprietary property, ie Bronco. Don't you love their approach to the world.
Wayne Ng
Wayne Ng Jul 21, 2020 4:54PM ET
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Many Americans are not going to be hypnotized any more
Holly Sorensen
Holly Sorensen Jul 21, 2020 4:41PM ET
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lol Paleeze!!! The U.S. is in the biggest hurry to make monkey ********their Citizens that they are mad other countries are so far ahead of us. trump will tell any lie to try to stay in office to avoid jail.
Julimani Ni
Julimani Ni Jul 21, 2020 4:21PM ET
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German chancellor will not forget who hacked her phone.
Jim Robertson
Jim Robertson Jul 21, 2020 4:21PM ET
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Did Obama do that? The new Erkle
Chris Sundo
Chris Sundo Jul 21, 2020 3:01PM ET
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the heading above is just another smoke and mirrors type of DISTRACTION technique. Proof: those two offenders: it's a decade-long situation held in storage for release right now. LOL
Chris Sundo
Chris Sundo Jul 21, 2020 2:57PM ET
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truth is: no maga under trump. hope you can see that. america's future wealth is spent right now to better trumps chances for another term. he doesn't even want to make things better. infra is gutted, and america is sliding backwards. the world sees it but americans are asleep at the wheel
Tyler Phillis
Tyler Phillis Jul 21, 2020 2:57PM ET
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Apperently you don’t get out much...
Holly Sorensen
Holly Sorensen Jul 21, 2020 2:57PM ET
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oh we see the sad state of our country...its the ignorant trumpanzees that support the traitor. he will lose the election just like he did the first time, only this time he he will be heading to jail where he belongs!
Jim Robertson
Jim Robertson Jul 21, 2020 2:57PM ET
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Go write another dossier and prop up another loser.
Chris Sundo
Chris Sundo Jul 21, 2020 2:55PM ET
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A decade-long, 10yrs .. and they bring it out now. Must be another smoke and mirror distraction by trump. -- Guys n Gals, I hope you see how America is fighting an internal war against a bully trying to corner the reigns so he can become AS powerful AS the commie regimes that seem to have it all: More money, more of the fancies, and never enough. Are you seeing that if America were to cater to one person who all along has been delusional, not being able to adapt to reality and still mismanaged the environment: do you see how future generations are going to pay the price? There should be no denying that the environment strongly impacts health, yet he has quit the Paris accord, dismantled the EPA, etc, all for what? To save money now for his pet project of getting re-elected. No way to maga under trump. If folks are inflexible enough in their mind to follow the basics of wearing masks how are we going to adapt to the harsher reality that China is going to out manufacture and rule America
Thom Miller
Thom Miller Jul 21, 2020 12:17PM ET
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According to the WH, it’s becoming more and more apparent the Covid-19 figures have been understated by about 8-11% for the past 2 months. In particular, the WH estimates hospitalizations and deaths from the virus are actually about 9% higher than previously reported. The undercounts trace primarily to Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Thom Miller
Thom Miller Jul 21, 2020 12:17PM ET
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As reported by Fox News 1 hour ago!
Mike Tan
Mike Tan Jul 21, 2020 12:13PM ET
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Dont be discrimination. There are alot of hacker in this world from msny country, no need to point to one country.
Buzzy Jefferson
Buzzy Jefferson Jul 21, 2020 12:13PM ET
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China is a cancer on the Earth. Like the Wuhan virus..they are the virus.
Mary Jane Wilson
Mary Jane Wilson Jul 21, 2020 12:00PM ET
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China does not like us
David David
David9 Jul 21, 2020 12:00PM ET
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Who told you that? Please provide links...we waiting...
 
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