The US Department of Justice on Monday accused four Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) members of stealing the sensitive personal information of about 145 million Americans, in one of the world’s largest-ever data breaches.
The four members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute were charged with multiple counts of hacking, computer fraud, economic espionage and wire fraud for their alleged involvement in the massive 2017 hacking of credit rating agency Equifax.
US officials said that it took more than a year to track them through the 34 servers in 20 countries they allegedly used to hide their tracks.
The US believes that the suspects — Wu Zhiyong (吳志勇), Wang Qian (王乾), Xu Ke (許可) and Liu Lei (劉磊) — are in China.
“This was an organized and remarkably brazen criminal heist of sensitive information of nearly half of all Americans, as well as the hard work and intellectual property of an American company, by a unit of the Chinese military,” US Attorney General Bill Barr said.
Beijing yesterday firmly rejected the claims, saying that it is a “staunch defender of cybersecurity.”
“The Chinese government and army ... never engage in or participate in activities of trade theft through the Internet,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) told a regular news briefing.
The hack stunned US intelligence officials, following a similar intrusion on the civil service database of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), also blamed on the Chinese.
Since then, hotel giant Marriott lost data on about 500 million global customers to hackers believed to be Chinese.
US officials believe the Chinese military and security service are collecting personal data on Americans for strictly intelligence purposes.
After the OPM hack there were worries that Beijing could use the information to identify US spies working under the cover of non-intelligence jobs.
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said that there was no evidence yet of the Equifax data having been used, for example to hijack a person’s bank account or credit card.
However, he added: “If you get the personal identifying information of people, you can do a lot with that.”
Atlanta, Georgia-based Equifax is one of three giant, little-regulated credit raters that sweep up financial data on all Americans — their credit cards and banking activity especially — that necessarily comes with identifying data such as their addresses and social security numbers.
The hackers allegedly took advantage of a vulnerability in the Apache Struts software that Equifax had on its systems.
While Apache notified clients of the problem in March 2017, Equifax did not fix it for months, which allowed the hackers to enter its systems with relative ease.
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