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US charges Chinese hackers with 'massive theft' from NASA, Navy and tech sector

The hacking campaign underscores a continuing threat from China, US officials say.

US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (right) describes charges against two Chinese hackers, as FBI Director Christopher Wray looks on.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The US Justice Department has charged two Chinese nationals with cybercrimes, citing the threat they pose to national security

These Chinese nationals, who the Department of Justice believes are working in association with the country's government as part of a hacking group called APT10, are accused of stealing information from at least 45 US tech companies and government agencies, including NASA, the Navy and the US Department of Energy.

"It is unacceptable that we continue to uncover cybercrime committed by China," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Thursday in a press conference.

Groups such as APT-10 use malware to access to computer networks and steal data over an extended period of time, he said.

In this case, the group stole hundreds of gigabytes of intellectual property and confidential business information, along with personally identifiable information on 100,000 members of the US Navy, officials said. The companies affected work in areas including biotech, health care, oil and gas exploration, and telecommunications and consumer electronics.

The extent of material gathered in the "massive theft" of data was "shocking and outrageous," said Geoffrey Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, in the press conference.

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The charges come after news last week from The New York Times that hackers from China's Ministry of State Security were behind an attack on the Marriott hotel chain, which exposed the personal information of up to 500 million people. In November, Reuters reported that a National Security Agency official said China has been violating a 2015 agreement stopping China from cyberspying on the US.

During the press conference, Rosenstein also noted that in the past seven years, more than 90 percent of the DOJ's cases alleging economic espionage have involved China. In addition, two-thirds of cases dealing with the theft of trade secrets also have ties to China.

The alleged hackers, Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, each face one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions (a maximum 5-year sentence), one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud (a maximum 20-year-sentence) and one count of aggravated identity theft (a mandatory 2-year sentence).

"No country poses a broader, more severe, long-term threat to our nation's economy and cyberinfrastructure than China," said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

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