US charges Chinese military officials with cyber-espionage

The US Justice Department has indicted five Chinese miltary officials with cyber-espionage today, the first time such criminal charges for hacking have been filed by the US against another country. The charges, announced by Attorney General Eric Holder this morning, allege the hackers targeted six American companies in the energy industry, including nuclear power.

According to the Justice Department, the five hackers used their skills to try to extract secrets and other information that could be used by Chinese firms in the years between 2006 and 2014.

"This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market," Holder said today.

The targeted companies are Westinghouse Electric Co., US subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG, United States Steel Corp., Allegheny Technologies Inc., the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, and Alcoa Inc.

However, experts are divided on whether the decision to file legal charges will actually make any difference to how the Chinese army behaves. Although some argue that the message it sends is one of heightened attention, others point out that the accusations aren't new, and yet China is still yet to change.

Back in early 2013, for instance, the US insisted that China change its hacking ways, having put into place a plan to help avoid trade-secret theft.

Meanwhile, China itself has been vocal – but protested its innocence – on hacking, simultaneously calling for improvements in talks with the US and accusing the country of "systematic" hacking attempts against it.

Theft of trade-secrets and other implications from cyber-espionage are believed to cost the US economy anything up to $120bn each year, with intelligence services saying China is responsible for the bulk of such attacks.

In return, though, the Chinese government has pointed to high-profile accusations of spying by the US, detailed in the WikiLeaks scandal, and argued that it is America which is more active in the area. President Obama has already attempted to curtail some of the NSA's actions within the US, though leaked documents have suggested the National Security Agency dispatched eavesdropping routers to foreign countries to track their internet use.

China is yet to comment on the charges.

SOURCE Justice Department