The indictment, which officials expected to discuss at a news conference, says the hackers in recent months had researched vulnerabilities in the computer networks of companies publicly known for their work in developing vaccines and treatments.
The indictment includes charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy against the hackers, who federal prosecutors say stole information not only for themselves but also that they knew would be of interest and value to the Chinese government.
The charges are believed to be the first accusing foreign hackers of targeting scientific innovation related to the coronavirus, though U.S. and Western intelligence agencies have warned for months about those efforts. Last week, for instance, authorities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom accused a hacking group with links to Russian intelligence with trying to target research on the disease.
“China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being ‘on call’ to work for the benefit of the state, here to feed the Chinese Communist party’s insatiable hunger for American and other non-Chinese companies’ hard-earned intellectual property, including COVID-19 research,” Assistant Attorney John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement.
There was no immediate indication from the indictment that the hackers had successfully obtained any COVID-19 research, despite efforts to snoop on the companies.
But prosecutors say the defendants in January conducted reconnaissance on the computer network of a Massachusetts biotech firm known to be researching a potential vaccine and searched for vulnerabilities on the network of a Maryland firm less than a week after it said it was conducting similar scientific work.
The case was filed earlier this month in federal court in Washington state and was unsealed on Tuesday.
An email sent by The Associated Press to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., seeking comment on the hacking charges was not immediately returned.