Cybersecurity

Chinese national pleads guilty to hacking U.S. contractors

iStockPhoto / FCW

A Chinese citizen pleaded guilty March 23 to a "years-long conspiracy to hack into the computer networks of major U.S. defense contractors," the Justice Department announced. The episode is a reminder of the Pentagon's ongoing struggle to keep defense secrets out of the hands of foreign hackers.

A 2014 criminal complaint charged Su Bin, whom DOJ described as a "businessman in the aviation and aerospace fields," with being part of a conspiracy to steal technical data related to U.S. military fighter jets and a Boeing Co.-made transport aircraft.

In a plea agreement filed March 22 in a U.S. district court, Su admitted to breaking into Boeing's computer networks, among others, from October 2008 to March 2014.

Su allegedly emailed co-conspirators tips on what people, companies and technologies to target. He and his Chinese co-conspirators, whom DOJ did not name, emailed reports on what technology that they had stolen to the "final beneficiaries of their hacking activities," according to DOJ.

The statement did not name those beneficiaries, saying only that the stolen data was sent to China. About three years after the offenses listed in the plea agreement, China did produce the Y-20 cargo plane, apparently modeled on the Air Force C-17.

Su was arrested in Canada in July 2014; he waived extradition and agreed to be brought to the United States in February 2016.

U.S. officials have long accused Chinese hackers of stealing trade secrets.  A confidential 2013 Defense Department report cited by the Washington Post said Chinese spies had hacked designs for some of the United States' most advanced weapons systems.

And it is not just U.S. defense contractors that China has allegedly targeted to skim intellectual property. China's spies have also looked to probe U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and the United Kingdom, according to Tony Cole, global government CTO at FireEye

"Su Bin admitted to playing an important role in a conspiracy, originating in China, to illegally access sensitive military data, including data relating to military aircraft that are indispensable in keeping our military personnel safe," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin said in a statement.

Frank Cilluffo, director of The George Washington University’s Cyber and Homeland Security, welcomed the charges brought against Su. If done consistently, prosecuting hackers can serve as a deterrent to future theft of U.S. trade secrets, Cilluffo told FCW.

Su faces up to five years in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for July 13.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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