Washington (February 11, 2020) – The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI announced charges against four Chinese military hackers in connection with the massive Equifax breach of 2017. After a two-year investigation, the members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei have been accused in a nine-count indictment of hacking into the computer systems of the credit reporting agency and stealing sensitive personal data of Americans, Canadians, and others as well as Equifax’s trade secrets. On February 10, the Chinese military hackers have been charged with computer fraud, economic espionage, and wire fraud.
Attorney General William Barr and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich announced charges against four members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for hacking into the credit reporting agency Equifax in 2017 at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on February 10.
Chinese military hackers accused of Equifax breach
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) laid charges against the Chinese military officers Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei – all members of the PLA’s 54th research institute. The indictment of the Federal Grand Jury in Atlanta accused the Chinese military hackers of being responsible for the massive Equifax data breach in 2017. Supposedly, the accused hacked into the computer system of the credit rating giant and stole sensitive personal data of millions of Americans, Canadians, and others as well as Equifax’s trade secrets.
‘They allegedly conspired with each other to hack into Equifax’s computer networks, maintain unauthorized access to those computers, and steal sensitive, personally identifiable information of approximately 145 million American victims,’ stated the DOJ in a press release.
The nine-count indictment charges the Chinese military hackers of three counts of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit economic espionage, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of unauthorized access and intentional damage to a protected computer, one count of economic espionage, and three counts of wire fraud.
The allegations have not been proven in court. The whereabouts of the suspects are unknown and it is highly unlikely that they will stand trial in the US.
The 2017 Equifax data breach
Over two years ago Equifax was the victim of a massive data breach. The credit reporting agency with headquarters in Atlanta maintains an immense repository of consumer information that it sells to businesses looking to verify identities or assess creditworthiness. Hence, Equifax is in possession of more than 820 million consumer data as well as information on 91 million businesses.
According to Attorney General Barr, the attack on Equifax is ‘one of the largest data breaches in history.’ The sensitive information of nearly 150 million Americans, as well as about 20,000 Canadians, had been stolen from the credit reporting company in July 2017. The stolen data included names, birth dates, social security numbers, and driver’s license numbers.
In the aftermath, Equifax was heavily criticized resulting in the dismissal of their then CEO. The privacy breach drew attention to how private companies accumulate personal information about their customers without effective data protection. Additionally, the consequences for Equifax contained the largest-ever settlement for a data breach. The civil settlement reached in the U.S. last year encompasses payments of US$700 million.