USA charges seven in wide-ranging Chinese hacking effort

Provided by Business Insider CHANDAN KHANNA  AFP via Getty Images

In the alleged video game scheme, the Malaysian business executives, Wong Ong Hua and Ling Yang Ching, teamed up with Chinese suspects Zhang Haoran and Tan Dailin to hack into popular video game companies and sell the in-game currency or player profiles on a website for gamers, according to the indictments, which did not identify any of the companies targeted.

The indictment stated that conspirators Jiang Lizhi (35), Qian Chuan (39) and Fu Qiang (37) worked as senior managers in a Chinese network security company and that they used their skills for "offensive" operations.

In addition, the three men allegedly compromised government computer networks in India and Vietnam and unsuccessfully attempted to penetrate government networks in Britain, according to an indictment.

The Deputy Attorney General said the Justice Department has used every available tool to prevent illegal computer intrusion and cyber attacks by these Chinese citizens. Some of these are multinational companies, which would mean companies on the level of Activision or EA Games.

The department will investigate into links between the attacks and the Chinese government. They could be in our country too, quietly causing damages where we least expect it.

US indictments unsealed Wednesday alleged that the activity is tied to China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), a civilian intelligence agency.

John Hultquist, senior director of analysis at Mandiant, said APT41 has been the "most prolific" Chinese threat group it's tracked over the past year. "Unfortunately, the record of recent years tells us that the Chinese Communist Party has a demonstrated history of choosing a different path, that of making China safe for their own cyber criminals, so long as they help with its goals of stealing intellectual property and stifling freedom".

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Rosen said the attacks targeting companies were "turbo-charged" by a sophisticated technique called a supply chain attack where the Chinese hackers infiltrated global software providers and altered the codes of their programs to install backdoors that enabled further hacks of the customers who bought their products. Two of the defendants named in the indictment have been arrested in Malaysia, while five more remain at large at home in mainland China.

The alleged hackers, who worked for a firm called Chengdu 404 Network Technology, carried off their supply-chain attack by hacking a European electronic communication service - probably a cloud provider - that develops and sells software to clients, the indictment said.

Their alleged targets include software development companies, computer manufacturers, telecommunications providers, social media companies, gaming firms, non-profits, universities, and think-tanks, as well as foreign governments and politicians and civil society figures in Hong Kong. Earlier this week the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced MSS hackers have lately been exploiting common vulnerabilities with known patches, including those affecting Citrix and Pulse Secure VPN appliances, F5 Networks' Big-IP Traffic Management User Interface, and Microsoft Exchange Server.

The charges stop short of accusing the defendants of working for the Chinese government, but noted that one of the defendants allegedly boasted of having ties to the Chinese Ministry of State Security. "For instance, they compromised video game distributors to proliferate malware which could then be used for follow-up operations".

But they said that in 2018, Chengdu 404 deployed a program to collect information on people involved in Hong Kong's democracy movement, on a U.S. media group reporting on the treatment of minority Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, and on a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

Department officials credited Malaysian authorities for arresting the two businessmen who it said conspired to profit from attacks on the video game industry.

These men face a range of charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and computer hacking.

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