Ten Chinese spies have been charged in the US with hacking in to aviation firms in the UK, US, France, and Australia to steal trade secrets.
The US Justice Department unsealed an indictment accusing intelligence officers of taking sensitive data “to build the same or similar engine without incurring substantial research and development expenses".
It was the third round of charges brought by the US since late September against alleged Chinese spies targeting commercial secrets from aviation and aerospace companies that are often also American defence contractors.
The move came amid a shift in the US to a more assertive policy towards China on top of the escalating trade spat.
American leaders have repeatedly accused Beijing of overstepping its bounds, orchestrating a sophisticated economic and military campaign to bolster its influence, and getting ahead by cheating and stealing intellectual property from the West.
“This is just the beginning,” said John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security. “Together with our federal partners, we will redouble our efforts to safeguard America’s ingenuity and investment.”
The officers – part of a regional unit of China’s Ministry of State Security, the agency responsible for domestic and foreign intelligence – stole turbofan engine plans and other confidential information from 13 companies, including two UK aerospace firms, which were not named in the indictment. Only one company’s name was revealed in court documents – Capstone Turbine, a gas turbine manufacturer in Los Angeles.
From 2010 to at least May 2015, they hacked into corporate computer networks through “phishing” attacks, when emails that seem to come from a trusted sender are used to get inside systems and glean confidential data. The hackers also turned company websites into malicious sites that infiltrated the computers of anyone who visited the pages.
At the time, a Chinese state-owned aerospace company was developing a comparable engine for use in commercial aircraft manufactured in China, such as the C919 and ARJ21. Both of these Chinese-made jets use foreign engines, and the country has long struggled to design a competitive version of its own.
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The Justice Department on Tuesday confirmed to The Telegraph that none of the ten defendants had been arrested.
The individuals named in the indictment are likely in China, and if so, it’s unlikely Beijing will ever hand them over – there is no extradition treaty between the two nations and Chinese officials have long denied cyber espionage. For years, Washington has indicted alleged Chinese spies in absentia.
In a first, the US extradited a Chinese national from Belgium earlier this month for trying to steal trade secrets from major US military jet engine suppliers, including GE Aviation.
In September 2015, Barack Obama, then the US president, and Xi Jinping, China’s president, signed a pledge not to hack each other for economic espionage.
Washington’s recent accusations indicate that China is in violation of that accord.
“State-sponsored hacking is a direct threat to our national security,” said Adam Braverman, a US government lawyer. “This action is yet another example of criminal efforts by the MSS to facilitate the theft of private data for China’s commercial gain.
China on Wednesday gave a robust denial, with the foreign ministry insisting: “The allegations are without any factual basis and are completely fabricated."