DOJ unseals charges against 10 Chinese nationals for hacking aerospace companies

The indictment returned by a grand jury in the Southern District of California lays out the hackers’ alleged tradecraft in detail.
The hackers were taking info tied to turbofan engines.

The Department of Justice on Tuesday unsealed charges against 10 Chinese nationals, including intelligence officers and hackers, for a multi-year campaign to steal aerospace technology and other proprietary information from U.S. companies.

Partly relying on a “team of hackers,” intelligence officers at a provincial arm of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) focused on stealing turbofan-engine technology used in European and U.S. commercial airliners, DOJ said in a statement. The alleged operation lasted from at least January 2010 to May 2015, the department said.

The turbofan engine was a joint project between unnamed French aerospace manufacturer and a U.S.-based company, according to DOJ. The Chinese intelligence operation breached the networks of the French manufacturer, as well as those of companies based in Arizona, Massachusetts and Oregon, the department said.

The indictment returned by a grand jury in the Southern District of California lays out the hackers’ alleged tradecraft in detail.


“The hackers used a range of techniques, including spear phishing, sowing multiple different strains of malware into company computer systems, using the victim companies’ own websites as ‘watering holes’ to compromise website visitors’ computers, and domain hijacking through the compromise of domain registrars,” the DOJ statement said.

A separate count in the indictment alleges that one of the Chinese hackers, Zhang Zhang-Gui, gave his friend, Li Xiao, variants of malware developed by the MSS’s provincial directorate in Jiangsu, China. Using that malware, Li allegedly hacked into a “San Diego-based computer technology company for more than a year and a half,” causing thousands of dollars in damage, the statement said.

DOJ officials said the indictment was part of a pattern of rampant intellectual property theft backed by the Chinese government –allegations Beijing has denied.

“This action is yet another example of criminal efforts by the MSS to facilitate the theft of private data for China’s commercial gain,” U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said in a statement.

The unsealing of the charges against Chinese intelligence officers follows the recent extradition to the United States of another MSS official for also allegedly stealing trade secrets from U.S. aerospace companies.


In July, the U.S. counterintelligence agency released a report assessing that nation-state-backed campaigns to steal U.S. trade secrets will continue.

Sean Lyngaas

Written by Sean Lyngaas

Sean Lyngaas is CyberScoop’s Senior Reporter covering the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. He was previously a freelance journalist in West Africa, where he covered everything from a presidential election in Ghana to military mutinies in Ivory Coast for The New York Times. Lyngaas’ reporting also has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist and the BBC, among other outlets. His investigation of cybersecurity issues in the nuclear sector, backed by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won plaudits from industrial security experts. He was previously a reporter with Federal Computer Week and, before that, with Smart Grid Today. Sean earned a B.A. in public policy from Duke University and an M.A. in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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