The U.S. federal government has filed charges against Chinese hackers, accusing them of orchestrating a scheme that targeted American politicians, national security interests, and journalists

The Justice Department accused seven Chinese nationals on Monday of carrying out a hacking campaign on behalf of China’s main intelligence service to steal data from American companies, universities, government agencies and human rights activists critical of Beijing.

The Justice Department revealed that thousands were targeted in the cyber operation, including White House officials, journalists, U.S. senators, and more.

The United Kingdom imposed sanctions on Monday against a state-sponsored company that it accused of involvement in a 2021 attack targeting parliamentarians’ emails.

“This case serves as a reminder of the ends to which the Chinese government is willing to go to target and intimidate its critics, including launching malicious cyber operations aimed at threatening the national security of the United States and our allies,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The company was targeted two months after FBI Director Christopher Wray cautioned Congress that Chinese hackers were to unleash an issue on critical U.S. infrastructure like the power grid and transportation networks, the announcement on Monday came.

U.S. puts sanctions against Chinese company

The U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Co., Ltd. for serving as a front company for cyberattacks perpetrated by a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group. According to federal prosecutors, China’s Hubei State Security Department used the company as a cover for cyberattacks carried out by the group known as “Advanced Persistent Threat 31” or APT31.

“The more than 10,000 malicious emails that the defendants and others in the APT31 Group sent to . . . targets often appeared to be from prominent news outlets or journalists and appeared to contain legitimate news articles,” prosecutors said in a statement.

The malicious emails contained hidden tracking links that secretly sent the recipient’s personal information to the hackers if opened, prosecutors said. This information included the recipient’s location, IP address, and details about their network and router.

Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin were sanctioned by the Treasury Department for allegedly orchestrating high-profile malicious cyber-attacks, including a 2020 spear-phishing attack targeting the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. They were two of the seven people charged in a related federal indictment.

The indictment revealed that APT31 also targeted critics of the Chinese government. In 2019, the hackers allegedly targeted Hong Kong pro-democracy activists based in the U.S. and other countries, as well as legislators, activists, and journalists involved with Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

“Without valid evidence, the US jumped to an unwarranted conclusion, made groundless accusations and opposed illegal and unilateral sanctions against China, which is extremely irresponsible. China firmly opposes this and will firmly safeguard its lawful rights and interests,” Pengyu said.

Hacking group responsible for wide span of attacks

xSeven defendants, along with dozens of others, were charged in an indictment for operating as part of APT31 on behalf of China’s Hubei State Security Department, according to federal prosecutors. The Justice Department stated that all defendants are believed to reside in China.

Since 2010, the cyberattack group allegedly attempted to access sensitive information belonging to millions of Americans, according to the indictment. The compromised data included email accounts, cloud storage accounts, phone logs, and other information that could have undermined democratic institutions if released publicly. Surveillance of some hacked email accounts allegedly continued for several years.

The indictment said the group targeted a wide range of individuals and organizations in its cyberattacks, including 2020 presidential campaign staff, critics of the Chinese government in the U.S. and abroad, and American companies across multiple industries like defense, finance, telecommunications, engineering, and research.

Recipients of the phishing emails included officials at the White House, the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Treasury and State, members of Congress from over ten states, government contractors, and political strategists.

“These allegations pull back the curtain on China’s vast illegal hacking operation that targeted sensitive data from U.S. elected and government officials, journalists and academics; valuable information from American companies; and political dissidents in America and abroad,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace.

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