WASHINGTON — In a landmark case alleging international economic spying, the United States announced yesterday unprecedented cyber espionage charges against five Chinese military officials accused of hacking into U.S. companies to gain trade secrets.
The hackers targeted big-name makers of nuclear and solar technology, stealing confidential business information, sensitive trade secrets and internal communications for competitive advantage, according to a grand jury indictment.
“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,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference.
The alleged targets are Alcoa World Alumina, Westinghouse Electric Co., Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel Corp., the United Steelworkers Union and SolarWorld. The indictment, which includes charges of trade-secret theft and economic espionage, was issued in Pittsburgh, where most of the companies are based.
The charges dramatize a longtime Obama administration goal to prosecute state-sponsored cyber threats, which U.S. officials say they have grappled with for years. A recent government report said that more than 40 Pentagon weapons programs and nearly 30 other defense technologies have been compromised by cyber intrusions from China. The cybersecurity firm Mandiant also has linked a secret Chinese military unit to years of cyberattacks against U.S. companies.
The prosecution was announced on the heels of a separate worldwide operation over the weekend that resulted in the arrests of 97 people in 16 countries who are suspected of developing, distributing or using malicious software called BlackShades. The software allows criminals to gain surreptitious control of personal computers.
“This is the new normal. This is what you’re going to see on a recurring basis,” Bob Anderson Jr., executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber Response and Services Division, said of the cyber espionage case.