US charges Chinese nationals in hacking scheme targeting politicians, businesses

Washington —The Justice Department announced charges against seven Chinese nationals with ties to a state-sponsored group in a hacking scheme, accusing the individuals of targeting US businesses and political officials, candidates and campaign staff to promote the Chinese government’s “economic espionage and foreign intelligence objectives. “

The indictment charges the seven individuals, who were allegedly part of a “group of malicious cyber actors,” with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for their ties to the hacking group’s work, some of which resulted in successful compromise of email accounts and phone records.

“This case serves as a reminder of the end to which the Chinese government is willing to go to target and intimidate its critics, including launching malicious cyber operations aimed at threatening the national security of the United States and our allies,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

Part of the alleged hacking scheme centered around emails sent to the targeted individuals and businesses that appeared to be from news outlets or journalists, which contained hidden phishing links that provided relevant information to a server controlled by the alleged hackers.

Among those targeted individuals were working at the White House and federal agencies, along with members of Congress from both political parties and in some cases their spouses. Campaign staff from both parties were also targeted ahead of the 2020 election.

“Over 10,000 malicious emails, impacting thousands of victims, across multiple continents,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement. “As alleged in today’s indictment, this prolific global hacking operation backed by the PRC government targeted journalists, political officials, and companies to repress critics of the Chinese regime, compromise government institutions, and steal trade secrets.”

But the Justice Department made clear in a news release that the indictment “does not allege that the hacking furthered any Chinese government influence operations against the United States,” which is consistent with a report released in 2021 that found that while some information had gathered by Chinese actors, it was not used in influencing operations.

Earlier Monday, the US imposed sanctions on the hacking group, known as APT31, accusing it of being a branch of Beijing’s top spy agency. The move came as the UK government similarly accused Chinese nationals of a hacking scheme, which took place in 2021, targeting personal details of voters.

Nicole Sganga contributed reporting.