The US Department of Justice has charged four Chinese military personnel with breaking into the computer systems of credit reporting agency Equifax after a two-year FBI investigation.
In the 2017 Equifax breach, hackers stole the social security numbers of nearly 150 million Americans and the driver’s licence numbers of at least 10 million Americans. The DOJ alleges that they also stole trade secrets in the form of “compiled data and complex database designs used to store the personal information”.
Now the DOJ has revealed that the breach was actually the work of the Chinese military. The hackers – Wang Qian, Wu Zhiyong, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei – all belonged to the 54th Research Institute, an electronic warfare division of the People’s Liberation Army.
“This kind of attack on American industry is of a piece with other Chinese illegal acquisitions of sensitive personal data,” Attorney-General William Barr told a media conference.
“For years, we have witnessed China’s voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans, including the theft of personnel records from the US Office of Personnel Management, the intrusion into Marriott hotels, and Anthem health insurance company, and now the wholesale theft of credit and other information from Equifax.”
The hackers broke into Equifax’s network through a vulnerability in the company’s dispute resolution website and spent weeks conducting reconnaissance, uploading malware, and stealing credentials in preparation for the data heist.
Mr Barr noted that the DOJ does not normally bring charges against members of another country’s military or intelligence services outside the US, but said that there are exceptions to the rule.
“The deliberate, indiscriminate theft of vast amounts of sensitive personal data of civilians, as occurred here, cannot be countenanced,” Mr Barr said.
The DOJ also accused the Ministry of State Security (MSS) – China’s intelligence apparatus – of targeting the nuclear power, metals, and solar products industries “for the economic benefit of Chinese companies” and said that 80 per cent of its economic espionage prosecutions have implicated the Chinese government.
The charges are likely to be another sticking point in relationships between the two countries, and come shortly after the Department of Commerce created a new rule that would allow Washington to slap tariffs on countries that devalue their currencies after President Donald Trump accused China of intentionally allowing the renminbi to slip below seven to the dollar at the height of the trade war.