• The hackers conducted their attacks at the behest of the Chinese government for both personal gain and benefit of Beijing, the indictment alleges
  • Charges include computr fraud and conspiracy to steal trade secrets
  • The indictment comes less than a week after the U.S. accused Russian hackers of going after coronavirus vaccine research

The Justice Department filed criminal charges against a pair of Chinese hackers, accusing them of trying steal coronavirus vaccine development data as part of a broader, yearslong cybertheft campaign.

The announcement comes less than a week after the U.S. accused Russia of trying to steal coronavirus research data.

The indictment against Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi was issued by a grand jury in Spokane, Washington, accusing them of hacking into hundreds of companies, governments, organizations, dissidents, clergy, and democratic and human rights activists at the behest of Beijing for both personal financial gain and the benefit of the Chinese government.

The 11-count indictment coincides with stepped up criticism of the Chinese handling of the coronavirus outbreak by President Trump and other administration officials.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security first warned of Chinese hacking efforts targeting coronavirus vaccine research in May. China routinely denies it promotes such activities.

Li, 34, and Dong, 33, were charged with computer fraud, conspiracy to steal trade secrets, unauthorized access of a computer and aggravated identity theft. They allegedly committed their hacking campaign from China over a decade against targets in the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Sweden and United Kingdom. Targeted industries included pharmaceuticals, high tech manufacturing and cryptocurrency.

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

The investigation began after an intrusion backed by the Chinese government on the computers at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site in eastern Washington, Spokane U.S. Attorney William Hyslop said.

“China steals intellectual property and research which bolsters its economy, and then they use that illicit gain as a weapon to silence any country that would dare challenge their illegal actions,” FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said.

The indictment alleges Li and Dong exploited publicly known software vulnerabilities to gain access to their targets, in many cases just after the flaws were announced and before a fix was available.

The indictment is part of a Justice Department program begun in 2018 prioritizing Chinese national security threats. The government says 80% of all federal economic espionage prosecutions have some connection to China.