U.S. Charges 4 Chinese Military Members with Massive Equifax Hack

The DOJ claims the Chinese government sponsored the Equifax data breach

What: The U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of four members of the Chinese military on charges that they conducted the 2017 Equifax hack that resulted in a massive data theft affecting 145 million Americans.

How: With the backing of the Chinese government, according to the DOJ, the group exploited a flaw in Equifax’s system and then accessed personal data including social security numbers and driver’s licenses. They also stole Equifax trade secrets.

Why Do You Care: The DOJ identifying the alleged hackers and China’s apparent pattern of trying to steal personal, business, and government data may spur companies and consumers to take a harsher look at Chinese-sponsored tech partnerships.

chinese military
Three of the Chinese military personnel charged with espionage. Department of Justice

Two years after the largest data breach in American history, the U.S. Government believes they’ve identified the culprits: the Department of Justice has handed down a nine-count indictment against four members of the Chinese military. All are charged with responsibility for the 2017 Equifax hack that resulted in the leak of critical personal data for 145 million Americans.

Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei did not go rogue and act on their own. According to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who announced the indictments on Monday, their alleged actions are part of a pattern of “state-sponsored computer intrusions” by China.

“For years we have witnessed China’s voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans,” said Barr. He added that 80% of the U.S.’s economic espionage prosecutions implicate the Chinese government.

The breach was a huge headache for consumers and an embarrassment for Equifax, a credit-reporting company that also offers personal identity protection services. The company, which cooperated with the DOJ and FBI throughout the investigation, ended up with a $700 million data breach settlement.

While official said there’s still no evidence that any of the stolen data is out in the wild, such thefts can, Barr noted, help feed China’s efforts to advance its Artificial Intelligence development efforts and tools.

For years we have witnessed China’s voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans.

Among the charges the group (which worked for the Chinese People Liberation Army (PLA) 54th Research Institute) face is conspiracy to commit economic espionage and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. It’s unclear how the men might be tried if they still reside in China.

It’s more likely that the indictments serve to put the Chinese government on notice, a reminder that the U.S. government knows what they’re up to. That’s some comfort, but certainly no guarantee that any government body, company, or consumer has the technical ability to prevent what are certain to be future hacks.