DOJ Charges Chinese Hackers with Trying to Steal COVID Research

Two hackers were charged with hacking into hundreds of individual and company systems, both in the United States and abroad, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday. The perpetrators, both Chinese nationals, allegedly acted “for the benefit of the (Ministry of State Security) or other Chinese government agencies” and their own personal financial gain. They are charged with conspiring to steal trade secrets consisting of technology designs and pharmaceutical chemical structures, among other charges. The case is being held in the Eastern District of Washington. The indictment was recently unsealed after being filed earlier this month.

Defendants Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi allegedly “conducted a hacking campaign lasting more than ten years to the present, targeting companies in countries with high technology industries.” Some of the targeted industries included medical device development, pharmaceuticals, and computer software. The hackers more recently “probed for vulnerabilities in computer networks of companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, testing technology, and treatments.”

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers accused China of harboring cybercriminals. “China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cybercriminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on-call’ to work for the benefit of the state,” he said. Demers continued, claiming that the criminal activity “[feeds] the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research.”

The defendants are not in federal custody and are unlikely to be tried in a U.S. court, however, “the indictment comes as a symbolic move to deter further hacking attempts from foreign nationals and governments,” according to Forbes. The Associated Press also reported that the “charges are the first from the Justice Department accusing foreign hackers of targeting innovation related to the coronavirus.”