WASHINGTON–Four members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army have been charged with hacking into the computer systems of the credit reporting agency Equifax in 2017.
A nine-count federal indictment unsealed Monday alleges the suspects stole personal information of 145 million Americans.
The suspects were members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute, part of the Chinese military. They were identified as Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei.
“It was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” Attorney General William Barr said.
The intrusion is the largest instance of state-sponsored theft in U.S. history, Deputy FBI Director David Bowdich said.
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray sounded an urgent warning about China’s pursuit of U.S. technology and trade secrets, casting the communist power’s campaign of theft as the “greatest long-term threat to our economic vitality.”
The director said the FBI has 1,000 open investigations into suspected Chinese economic espionage and technology theft.
Wray said the Chinese government will use any means necessary to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense” by penetrating information technology systems, aerospace, agriculture, defense and research programs, and broad swaths of academia.
“The dictatorship,” Wray told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “has mobilized all aspects of Chinese society to dominate the core technologies of the future.” That effort is supported by industrial espionage, theft and corruption, he said.
“The Chinese have targeted companies producing everything from proprietary rice and corn seeds to software for wind turbines to high-end medical devices,” Wray said. “And they’re not just targeting innovation and (research and development). They’re going after cost and pricing information, internal strategy documents … anything that can give them a competitive advantage.”
Barr said China’s “economic aggression” costs American industries and academia up to $600 billion annually.