The U.S Is Charging Foreign Military Officials With Cyberespionage for the First Time

Attorney General Eric Holder announces indictments against Chinese military hackers.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Justice announced today that it has filed charges against several officials in the Chinese army. They are accused of hacking U.S. companies and stealing trade secrets. DoJ officials say this is the first time foreign military officials have been charged with cyberespionage.

The companies that were allegedly hacked include subsidiaries of Solar World, U.S. Steel, and Westinghouse Electric, according to documents that were unsealed today. Alongside the document release, Attorney General Eric Holder announced charges against members of unit 61398 of the Chinese military. Holder said:

We allege that members of unit 61398 conspired to hack into computers of six U.S. victims to steal information that would provide an economic advantage to the victims’ competitors, including Chinese state-owned enterprises. … This conduct is criminal. And it is not conduct that most responsible nations within the global economic community would tolerate.

There is already tension between the U.S. and China over cyberespionage and hacking. For example, in March the Washington Post reported that China had demanded the NSA cease surveillance operations on the telecom company Huawei Technologies.

A Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told reporters:

We want the Chinese to understand what it is we’re doing in building a cyber­force at Cyber Command, understand how we operate, understand the policies we use, like the policy of restraint,” the official said in a call with reporters before the speech.

But the DoJ is not being so understanding of Chinese hacks. Especially since the agency has known since 2013 that there was an extensive Chinese initiative to hack American companies. A report released by the security firm Mandiant at the time showed that the majority of hacks on U.S. companies and the government were coming from the Chinese military.

The precedent set by these charges may result in similar prosecutions in the future, though it is unclear how they will play out internationally. In case you were thinking about it, it’s probably not the best day to hack a Chinese military server.