On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.
That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.
Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.
American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.
Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…
Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.
Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals, Economist, May 24, at 28