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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – Federal prosecutors in San Diego announced charges Monday against four Chinese nationals accused of taking part in a campaign to hack into the computer systems of various entities across the globe in order to steal information for the benefit of the Chinese government.

The defendants allegedly belonged to and worked for the Hainan State Security Department, described in the indictment as a provincial foreign intelligence arm of the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of State Security.

According to the Department of Justice, the alleged thefts occurred between 2011 and 2018, involved victims in a dozen countries, and mainly centered “on information that was of significant economic benefit to China’s companies and commercial sectors.”

Prosecutors allege the goal was to have malware and other hacking tools installed in computer systems in order to steal data from foreign governments, universities and companies. The hacks targeted information from a wide range of industries, including aviation, defense, healthcare and infectious disease research, prosecutors said.

“This indictment alleges a worldwide hacking and economic espionage campaign led by the government of China,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “The defendants include foreign intelligence officials who orchestrated the alleged offenses, and the indictment demonstrates how China’s government made a deliberate choice to cheat and steal instead of innovate.”

The Hainan State Security Department, or HSSD, operated through a front company called Hainan Xiandun Technology, which was publicly marketed as “a fast-growing high-tech information security company,” according to the two- count indictment returned by a grand jury in May and unsealed last week.

Defendants include Ding Xiaoyang, Cheng Qingmin, and Zhu Yunmin, who are described as HSSD officers “responsible for coordinating, facilitating and managing computer hackers and linguists” at Hainan Xiandun and other front companies, as well as Wu Shurong, a computer hacker accused of creating malware, hacking into computer systems and supervising other Hainan Xiandun hackers.

They are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage.

The Department of Justice alleges the hacking campaign continued despite a 2015 agreement between the U.S. and Chinese governments to curb cyber- related theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or other confidential information for the aims of gaining a commercial advantage.

“These criminal charges once again highlight China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco.

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