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DOJ charges 10 Chinese hackers, intel officers for trying to steal US aviation secrets

Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., on November 29, 2017. (Ting Shen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
October 31, 2018

The Department of Justice has announced indictments against 10 Chinese intelligence officers and hackers for their attempts to steal data from aviation companies in the U.S.

Intelligence officers formed a team of hackers who repeatedly attempted to breach computer systems of top U.S. aviation companies during a period of five years in order to steal data, trade secrets and other sensitive company information, according to the Department of Justice press release from Tuesday.

Two of the 10 defendants were intelligence officers with the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security (JSSD), a foreign intelligence division of the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is the state agency behind intelligence and security.

The two officers recruited and directed six hackers who performed the hacking activities. The other two defendants were hackers who worked in China for a French aviation company.

Between Jan. 2010 and May 2015, the officers “focused on the theft of technology underlying a turbofan engine used in U.S. and European commercial airliners. This engine was being developed through a partnership between a French aerospace manufacturer with an office in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, and a company based in the United States.”

The hackers used malware, phishing tools, and other techniques to infect the computers and attempt data breaches.

“Members of the conspiracy, assisted and enabled by JSSD-recruited insiders Gu Gen and Tian Xi, hacked the French aerospace manufacturer.  The hackers also conducted intrusions into other companies that manufactured parts for the turbofan jet engine, including aerospace companies based in Arizona, Massachusetts and Oregon,” the DOJ statement noted.

“At the time of the intrusions, a Chinese state-owned aerospace company was working to develop a comparable engine for use in commercial aircraft manufactured in China and elsewhere,” the statement added.

“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 C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security. “This is just the beginning.  Together with our federal partners, we will redouble our efforts to safeguard America’s ingenuity and investment.”

This isn’t the first instance of Chinese nationals targeting U.S. aviation companies.

On Oct. 10, the DOJ took custody of a Chinese intelligence officer charged with spying and espionage. He was the first to be extradited to the U.S. to face his charges.

The officer, Xu Yanjun, is a senior level intelligence official with the Chinese government who attempted to recruit experts in leading aviation companies to steal trade secrets and other classified information in the aerospace industry.

In September, a Chinese spy – who was also a reservist in the U.S. Army – was arrested on charges of acting as a foreign agent after he attempted to recruit U.S. defense contractors in a spying scheme for China.

“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,” said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman. “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.”