DOJ throws down the gauntlet with cyber crime charges against Chinese military

Things are probably going to be a little (more) tense between the United States and China for a while Attorney General Eric Holder announced this morning that the US Department of Justice has indicted a number of Chinese military officials for cyber crimes perpetrated against US companies.

In a press conference revealing the charges, Holder stressed that this is not the sort of espionage and cyber spying nations routinely conduct against each other. What makes these activities different according to Holder is that they are pure corporate espionage for the purpose of giving Chinese companies an advantage against US businesses. In other words, this isn’t about the Chinese military trying to hack the Pentagon or Lockheed-Martin to spy on military secrets, this is about the Chinese government stealing proprietary information from private businesses in the US to give Chinese businesses an edge.

“This is an incredibly significant prosecution. It is the first time the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal computer crime statute, and the Economic Espionage Act, the federal criminal trade secrets act, has been used against representatives of a foreign government,” explained Nick Ackerman, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney, and an expert on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. “Both of these statutes have been in existence for a number of years, yet the government has not used either statute against a representative of a foreign government.”

George Kurtz, President/CEO and co-founder of CrowdStrike, agreed in an emailed comment. “This is a watershed moment that many in the cyber security industry have been waiting for. CrowdStrike has been tracking many of these Chinese adversaries for years and has been pushing the government to actively pursue these groups through all available legal and diplomatic means."

It is difficult to say what—if anything—will actually happen as a result of these charges. The five Chinese military officials have apparently never stepped foot in the United States, and the odds of getting them here are slim. The Chinese government has already denounced the charges and declared that it will not cooperate in any way, so it seems unlikely that the accused individuals will be extradited to the United States to appear in court and dace the charges.

If nothing else, the indictment focuses attention on the problem. It lets foreign governments know that the US is monitoring these activities, and that they won’t be tolerated. Hopefully, it also raises awareness within private industry that they are potential targets, and need to take steps to prevent—or at least detect—hacking attempts.

Ackerman summed up. “This is truly a precedent setting case, even though it may be difficult ultimately to bring these defendants to justice in the US. However, the fact that they have been indicted will have a wide-ranging impact regardless of whether they are ever tried in the US.”

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