Published: Thu, November 01, 2018
Global News | By Blake Casey

Chinese intelligence officers charged in USA with jet engine hacking conspiracy

Chinese intelligence officers charged in USA with jet engine hacking conspiracy

At the time of the intrusions, a Chinese state-owned aerospace company was developing a comparable commercial jet engine, they said.

"For the third time since only September, the National Security Division, with its U.S. Attorney partners, has brought charges against Chinese intelligence officers from the JSSD and those working at their direction and control for stealing American intellectual property", said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for National Security.

The companies were not named, but earlier indictments pointed to Cincinnati, Ohio-based GE Aviation, one of the world's leading aircraft engine manufacturers.

The five-year conspiracy was led by Zha Rong, a division director of the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, and Chai Meng, a section chief - both supervisors overseeing human intelligence and intellectual property theft operations within the ranks of the Chinese government, according to the indictment.

Chinese intelligence officers and hackers working for them have been charged with commercial espionage that included trying to steal information on commercial jet engines, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

The intrusion, beginning in 2010, stretched beyond the two main companies involved and targeted several businesses through the USA - from MA to Arizona to OR - that were developing parts for the engine, according to the charges.

The unsealed indictment describes a plot spearheaded by the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security (JSSD), headquartered in Nanjing, China, to steal "sensitive commercial technological, aviation, and aerospace data by hacking into computers in the United States and overseas".

"This is just the beginning".

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The hackers also used hijacked company websites known as "water holes" that draw unsuspecting computer operators to the sites and fool them into giving up network access credentials. "Together with our federal partners, we will redouble our efforts to safeguard America's ingenuity and investment", he added.

The turbofan engine targeted by members of the conspiracy was being developed through a partnership between Company I and an aerospace company based in the US.

The prosecution is linked to another San Diego case that accuses a Shanghai malware broker of providing the Sakula program for the Capstone Turbine attacks.

The Chinese also were able to co-opt company employees in conducting the cyber economic espionage.

"The French are asking Little Gu [Company I's IT manager] to inspect the record:", a Chinese intelligence officer allegedly said in a text to one of the defendants, according to the indictment. Tian intentionally infected the company network with malware he obtained from a Chinese State Security officer.

The Chinese agents were after details about a turbofan engine used in commercial airplanes, the indictment alleges (pdf). Additionally, two of those named in the indictment were employed by the French company.

For Capstone, the Chinese used a malware called "Winnti" that sent a "beacon" to alert the hackers that the malware had been successfully installed. None of the suspects are in United States custody.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the Tuesday indictment concerned activities conducted by Chinese agents before Communist Party leader Xi Jinping signed a landmark cyberespionage accord with then-President Barack Obama, but sources familiar with DOJ's plans said indictments will be handed down soon for Chinese espionage conducted after Xi signed the pledge.

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