The US Justice Department has indicted two Chinese nationals, accusing them of trying to steal intellectual property and coronavirus vaccine research from firms based in the US and other countries.
The indictment, which was unsealed on Tuesday, identifies the suspects as Dong Jiazhi and Li Xiaoyu, and claims that they were assisted by China's Ministry of State Security in their attempts to target defence contractors, health care firms, medial research institutions, universities, maritime engineering firms, human rights activists and a range of other targets in western countries.
The campaign is believed to have begun in September 2019, predating the Covid-19 pandemic, and continued into July, according to the US officials said.
The accused hackers, who were classmates at an engineering college in Chendgu, sometimes acted on behalf of Chinese spy agencies and sometimes to profit themselves, the authorities say. In the last ten years, they have stolen terabytes of data from organisations based in the US, UK Germany, Australia, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Lithuania, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden.
"More recently, the defendants probed for vulnerabilities in computer networks of companies developing Covid-19 vaccines, testing technology, and treatments," the indictment said, according to Bloomberg.
They targeted biotech research firms in Massachusetts, California, Maryland and elsewhere but were apparently not able to compromise any Covid-19 research.
Li and Dong have been charged with conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets, conspiracy to commit computer fraud, wire fraud, unauthorised access of a computer and identity theft.
The duo is currently thought to be living in China, beyond the reach of US law enforcement agencies.
"Cybercrimes directed by the Chinese government's intelligence services not only threaten the United States but also every other country that supports fair play, international norms, and the rule of law," FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said.
John Demers, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, accused China of providing a safe haven to hackers working for personal gains and the state's interests.
The latest accusations by the US have come amid rising tensions between the two countries that have been fuelled in recent days by coronavirus pandemic and China's treatment of Hong Kong.
China, however, described the claims such claims as "groundless".
"Such accusations constitute disrespect for Chinese scientists & their achievements; they could also undermine international cooperation on R&D. The world must strongly oppose and reject such groundless claims," Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador in the UK, said in a tweet.
The new charges also come days after the US, UK and Canada accused Russia of trying to steal confidential information on Covid-19 vaccine development.
In an alert issued last week, UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said that Russia-backed advanced persistent threat group APT29 was targeting British labs in efforts to "steal valuable intellectual property" on Covid-19 vaccine.
The US and Canada, whose labs were also targeted by hackers, also backed NCSC's assessment.
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