The United States has brought cyber espionage charges against five Chinese military officials, accusing them of hacking into American companies’ systems to gain trade secrets.
US attorney general Eric Holder said the officials hacked into six nuclear power, metals and solar products firms.
The charges are the first of their kind and the move is part of a long-held Obama administration goal to prosecute in cases of state-sponsored cyber threats. Mr Holder said the US would not tolerate foreign government efforts to sabotage American companies.
US officials have accused China’s army and China-based hackers of launching attacks on American industrial and military targets, often to steal secrets or intellectual property.
China has said it faces a major threat from hackers, and the country’s military is believed to be among the biggest targets of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and US Cyber Command.
Sceptics noted that US authorities would not be able to arrest those indicted, as Beijing is unlikely to hand them over. But the move would prevent the individuals concerned from travelling to the US or other countries that have an extradition agreement with it.
“It won’t slow China down,” said Eric Johnson, dean of the business school at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and an expert on cyber security issues.
But Stewart Baker, a former NSA lawyer, said the hackers named in the indictments might have trouble getting jobs in China’s private sector when they move on from employment with the People’s Liberation Army.
He said: “In the long run, it could even hurt your employability in China, because the US government is going to look askance at Chinese firms that hire former cyber spies.”
Last September, US president Barack Obama discussed cyber security issues with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in St Petersburg.
White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said at the time that Mr Obama had addressed concerns about cyber threats emanating from China.
He said the president told Mr Xi that the US saw the issue not in terms of security but theft of trade secrets.
In late March, US defence secretary Chuck Hagel revealed that the Pentagon planned to more than triple its cyber security staff in the next few years to defend against internet attacks.
“Our nation’s reliance on cyberspace outpaces our cyber security,” Mr Hagel said at the time.
“Our nation confronts the proliferation of destructive malware and a new reality of steady, ongoing and aggressive efforts to probe, access or disrupt public and private networks, and the industrial control systems that manage our water, and our energy and our food supplies.”
Mr Holder said yesterday that the companies affected by the latest alleged hacking were Alcoa World Alumina, Westinghouse Electric, Allegheny Technologies, US Steel, United Steelworkers Union and SolarWorld.
He added: “It is our hope that the Chinese government will respect our criminal justice system.”
Bob Anderson, executive assistant director of the FBI’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch, said of the charges: “This is the new normal. This is what you’re going to see on a recurring basis.”
In a statement, China’s foreign ministry said the US charges were based on “fabricated facts” and that they jeopardised China-US “co-operation and mutual trust”.
The statement added: “China is steadfast in upholding cyber security. The Chinese government, the Chinese military and their relevant personnel have never engaged or participated in cyber theft of trade secrets.
“The US accusation against Chinese personnel is purely ungrounded and absurd.”