Chinese intelligence officers conspired with hackers and company insiders to break into private companies’ computer systems and steal information on a turbo fan engine used in commercial jetliners, according to a US indictment.
The 10 people charged conspired to steal sensitive data “that could be used by Chinese entities to build the same or similar engine without incurring substantial research and development expenses” the indictment released by the US Department of Justice said on Tuesday.
More than a dozen companies were targeted, but only Capstone Turbine Corp was identified by name.
Others were listed as a French aerospace manufacturer with an office in Suzhou, China, a United Kingdom aerospace company, and a multinational conglomerate that produces commercial and consumer products and aerospace systems.
The indictment charges Zha Rong and Chai Meng along with other co-conspirators who worked for the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a unit of the foreign intelligence arm of the Ministry of State Security.
The indictment detailed efforts to use malware and phishing techniques to hack into target computers and remove data on the engines and parts.
Six hackers who worked under the spies were also named, and two men who worked for the French company.
Their efforts to steal sensitive commercial aviation and other data took place from January 2010 through May 2015.
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The case has added to rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over geopolitics, trade, hacking and corporate espionage.
It marks the third major corporate espionage-related case involving Chinese intelligence officers brought by the Justice Department since last month.
In late September, a Chinese national who also enlisted in the US Army Reserve was arrested in Chicago for working for Chinese intelligence to recruit engineers and scientists, including some who worked for US defence contractors.
Earlier in October, the Justice Department also announced it arrested a spy for China’s Ministry of State Security on charges of economic espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets from several US aviation and aerospace companies.
In that matter, the FBI said the extradition of Chinese operative Xu Yanjun from Belgium was unprecedented, and the case highlighted the Chinese government’s direct control over economic espionage in the United States.
After Xu’s arrest, China said the United States was “making something out of thin air”.
Private data theft
John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, highlighted the pattern of the three cases.
“This is just the beginning,” he said in a statement. “Together with our federal partners, we will redouble our efforts to safeguard America’s ingenuity and investment.”
The FBI worked on the case together with France’s General Directorate for Internal Security.
“This action is yet another example of criminal efforts by the [Ministry of State Security] to facilitate the theft of private data for China’s commercial gain,” US Attorney Adam Braverman said in a statement.
“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.”