From a 12-story building in the Chinese city of Shanghai, the soldiers of Unit 61398 use cyberwarfare techniques to steal secrets from American companies, U.S. prosecutors allege. In a detailed indictment unveiled Monday, five intelligence officers of that shadowy unit from the People's Liberation Army were charged with economic espionage, trade-secret theft and conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, among other crimes.
Using screen names like UglyGorilla, the Chinese cyberwarriors broke into the private files of Alcoa, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Electric and other cutting-edge U.S. companies, the indictment says. Their mission: Steal American industrial technology to speed Chinese economic growth and make Chinese enterprises more competitive, prosecutors allege.
The indictment is a welcome step in the defense of vital American interests. It is unlikely the five defendants ever will see the inside of a U.S. courtroom, unless they're caught traveling in a country that will extradite them to face charges here. More likely, the point of this prosecution is to send a message to China that aggressive theft of American economic secrets will not be tolerated.
Let's hope the message succeeds. China's reaction so far: a predictable show of outrage and emphatic denial. The Chinese also blasted U.S. leaders for being hypocrites, imposing a double standard.
That assertion stings in light of revelations about American cyberspying from Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who fled the U.S. after betraying its secrets. Snowden revealed, for instance, that American agents tried to monitor Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Thus it's tempting, as the Chinese suggest, to write off cyberespionage as a case of what works for one, works for the other.
Not so. Chinese efforts to steal trade secrets go far beyond anything that has come to light in the United States. No evidence suggests that government and industry on this side of the Pacific work hand in hand to share information stolen from Chinese businesses.
In China, some of the biggest companies are owned and controlled by the government. Much less separation exists between the state and private sectors, making it simpler for stolen trade secrets to be put to commercial use. The Chinese also stand to gain more from commercial spying, since U.S. businesses have the most advanced technology. Cyberwarfare is just one method to obtain it. China also has a history of recruiting sympathetic students and professionals to share secrets from their studies and work.
Consider Dongfan Chung, a naturalized American citizen and former Boeing Co. employee now serving a 15-year prison sentence for passing on aerospace technology to China. Chung was charged under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, a law Congress approved to encourage prosecutions such as the case unveiled this week.
The latest indictment's unsung heroes are the companies that cooperated with the U.S. Department of Justice and went public with incidents of alleged spying. It must have been tempting for those companies to keep quiet, to avoid raising doubts about their cybersecurity practices and to discourage others from testing their vulnerabilities.
Further, multinationals that do business around the world could face retaliation from the Chinese government. Their businesses could suffer.
Their far greater risk, however, is to allow foreign governments to pilfer intellectual property without taking action. The Justice Department says that Chinese agents have launched thousands of cyberattacks aimed at obtaining valuable secrets. Standing by and watching it happen would be intolerable. Additional cases involving China as well as hackers in Russia reportedly are being prepared.
More prosecutions, please.
-- Chicago Tribune