Hackers working with the Chinese government targeted firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus and stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world, the Justice Department said in announcing criminal charges, the Associated Press reports. The indictment does not accuse two Chinese defendants of actually obtaining the coronavirus research, but it underscores the extent to which scientific innovation has been a top target for foreign governments. The Chinese hackers researched vulnerabilities in computer networks of biotech firms and diagnostic companies that were developing vaccines and testing kits and researching antiviral drugs.
The indictment includes trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy charges against former classmates at an electrical engineering college who prosecutors say worked together for more than a decade targeting high-tech companies in more than 10 countries. The hackers, identified as Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi, stole information not only for their personal profit but also research they knew would be of value to the Chinese government, prosecutors say. They are accused of providing an officer for a Chinese intelligence service email accounts and passwords belonging to clergymen, dissidents and pro-democracy activists who could then be targeted. The two defendants are not in custody, and federal officials conceded that they were not likely to step foot in a U.S. court. The indictment carries important symbolic value for the Justice Department, which decided that calling out the behavior was more worthwhile than waiting for a unlikely scenario in which the defendants would travel to the U.S. and risk arrest. The case is the first from DOJ accusing foreign hackers of targeting innovation related to the coronavirus. Western intelligence agencies have warned for months about those efforts.