Trump Ups Pressure On China Over Cyberhacks

Screenshot of FBI wanted poster for four alleged members of the PLA Fourth Department's 54th Research Institute in connection with the hack of the credit rating agency Equifax in 2017.

A REMINDER THAT the greatest deal in the history of the universe, or whatever US President Donald Trump called his Phase One trade deal with China, did not touch on one of the United States’ biggest beefs with Beijing, cybertheft.

Four alleged members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute have been charged in the United States in connection with the cyberattack on the US credit rating company Equifax in 2017. Personal data of 147 million Americans and some UK and Canadian citizens were stolen in what was one of the largest data breaches in history.

The four were named as Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei. Their whereabouts are unknown at it is highly unlikely they will ever appear before a US court.  The 54th Research Institute is based in Hebei and is overseen by the PLA’s Fourth Department, the military’s electronic and information warfare arm, including offensive cyber operations.

At a news conference announcing the nine-count indictment, US Attorney General William Barr called out other alleged cyberattacks by Chinese agents including on health insurer Anthem and the federal Office of Personnel Management reported in 2015, as well as a 2018 hack of the hotel chain Marriott.

US intelligence services believe that the Chinese government has been systematically accumulating personal information on US citizen and data-mining it for compromising details about individuals, including those in government and military service and academia, who could then be susceptible to blackmail and, thus, be potential recruits as spies. Washington also fears that this profiling exercise could also expose US intelligence agents working abroad.

Beijing has denied any such hacks and intentions.

When the Obama administration indicted five suspected PLA hackers in 2014 for allegedly breaking into the computer systems of several US manufacturing companies, it led to an agreement by China to cut back its cybertheft from US firms. Given the strained level of US-China relations tody, whether the Trump administration could get similar temporary relief if that is its aim in making this latest indictment public, is a different matter.

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Filed under China-U.S., Defence

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