(CN) – The Department of Justice unsealed charges against 10 Chinese intelligence officials and agents Tuesday, accusing them of trying to hack into U.S. and European aerospace companies as part of an economic espionage scheme.
The Ministry of State Security, China’s spy agency, and its affiliate Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security are accused of using its agents in a five-year operation “to steal sensitive commercial technological, aviation, and aerospace data by hacking into computers in the United States and abroad,” according to the indictment filed in the U.S. District Court of Southern California.
China has long been suspected of carrying out economic espionage activities against American companies. The U.S. has already brought several charges against Chinese hackers this year for data theft.
“For the third time since only September, the National Security Division, with its US Attorney partners, has brought charges against Chinese intelligence officers from the JSSD and those working at their direction and control for stealing American intellectual property,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general, in a prepared statement.
The indictment names intelligence officers and Chinese nationals as part of a group operating from January 2010 to May 2015 set up to steal turbofan engine technology used in European and U.S. commercial airplanes.
The group hacked into the computers of a French aerospace company working with a U.S.-based company on the engine, as well as American aerospace companies that manufactured parts for it, according to the indictment.
The hackers used several different methods in order to obtain the technology according to the DOJ, including introduction of several malware strains, phishing and “watering hole” attacks that use a company’s website to compromise visitors’ computers.
The Justice Department did not name the affected companies besides gas turbine manufacturer Capstone Turbine, the first target of the operation whose website was used as a “watering hole.”
“State-sponsored hacking is a direct threat to our national security. This action is yet another example of criminal efforts by the MSS to facilitate the theft of private data for China’s commercial gain,” U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said in a statement. “The concerted effort to steal, rather than simply purchase, commercially available products should offend every company that invests talent, energy, and shareholder money into the development of products.”
It is unknown if any of the defendants will face trial as China does not hold an extradition treaty with the U.S. Still, federal law enforcement officials said they will continue to root out foreign hackers.
“Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the assistance of our private sector, international and U.S. government partners, is sending a strong message to the Chinese government and other foreign governments involved in hacking activities,” said FBI Special Agent John Brown. “We are working together to vigorously investigate and hold hackers accountable regardless of their attempts to hide their illicit activities and identities.”