WASHINGTON The Justice Department said on Wednesday that a group of hackers associated with China’s main intelligence service had infiltrated more than 100 companies and organizations around the world to steal intelligence, hijack their networks and extort their victims.
The United States government presented the allegations in a series of three unsealed indictments on Wednesday that showed the scope and sophistication of China’s attempts to illegally advance its economy and become the dominant global superpower through cyber attacks. The indictments also indicated that some of the hackers had worked with Malaysian nationals to steal and launder money through the video game industry.
The Chinese government has made a deliberate choice to allow its citizens to commit intrusions and computer attacks around the world, as these actors will also help the PRC, said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, referring to the People’s Republic of China at a press conference. where he announced the charges.
Acting U.S. District of Columbia attorney Michael R. Sherwin said some of the perpetrators viewed their association with China as a free license to hack and steal around the world.
Hackers Zhang Haoran, Tan Dailin, Jiang Lizhi, Qian Chuan and Fu Qiang have targeted social media and other tech companies, universities, government agencies and nonprofits, the indictments say. .
They had such reach in part because they used a so-called supply chain attack that allowed them to break into software vendors and embed malicious code into their products. Once these products were installed in other systems, the hackers were able to use the code they had planted to break in. The attack described by Justice Department officials on Wednesday was one of the first supply chain attacks publicly disclosed in a U.S. indictment against Chinese nationals.
Some of the Chinese hackers have also worked with two Malaysian businessmen to use video game platforms to steal businesses and launder illegal proceeds. The businessmen, Wong Ong Hua and Ling Yang Ching, were arrested in Malaysia on Monday, officials said.
Criminal computer activity and hackers had been tracked by cyber researchers under the group names Advanced Persistent Threat 41, Barium, Winnti, Wicked Panda and Panda Spider, officials said.
They compromised video game distributors to proliferate malware, which could then be used for tracking operations, said John Hultquist, senior director of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Mandiant.
The group initially known as the Wicked Spider to researchers at CrowdStrike, the California cybersecurity firm, appeared to be hacking for profit. But from the end of 2015, there was a noticeable change.
The group, which primarily targeted gaming companies, grew to a long list of companies in the United States, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that operated in agriculture, the hospitality, chemicals, manufacturing and technology whose intellectual property would help China’s official five-year plan, the high-level policy blueprint of nations.
Their techniques have also changed. In the past, the group was known to use similar malware in attacks, but that year its hackers began pursuing a more sophisticated set of supply chain attacks.
At the end of 2016, researchers concluded that the pirates they had known as Wicked Spider were operating at the behest of the Chinese state and changed their nickname to Wicked Panda. Panda was CrowdStrikes’ nickname for hacking groups that acted on behalf of the Chinese government.
As the indictments were announced Wednesday, researchers applauded the effort. The U.S. government is starting to reverse the trend of Chinese intrusion operations on Western businesses and targets, said Adam Meyers, CrowdStrikes’ threat intelligence officer.
Verizon, Microsoft, Facebook and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have assisted the government in its investigation.
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