The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has charged five Chinese officials with spying on US firms, in a major development that escalates the war of words between the two nations over accusations of economic espionage.
The DoJ has released a statement in which it accused military hackers of attacking and breaching a number of companies in the power, metal and nuclear industries such as Westinghouse, SolarWorld, US Steel and Alcoa.
Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu and Gu Chunhui are named as defendants and listed as officers in the infamous Unit 61398 of the Third Department of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).
The DoJ says that Huang and Gu are facilitators that provided tech support, while the others are alleged to have done the breaking in and snooping. All are said to have acted under direct oversight from the Chinese government.
The DoJ says that this is the first time that state actors have been charged, and in released statements it accused the military men of state-sponsored surveillance.
US attorney general Eric Holder said: "This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking.
"The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response. Success in the global market place should be based solely on a company's ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government's ability to spy and steal business secrets.
"This administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market."
The defendants face 31 counts, said the DoJ, and it appears that prosecutors favour a hardline response.
"State actors engaged in cyber espionage for economic advantage are not immune from the law just because they hack under the shadow of their country's flag," said John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security.
"Cyber theft is real theft and we will hold state-sponsored cyber thieves accountable as we would any other transnational criminal organisation that steals our goods and breaks our laws."
It is possible that the Chinese authorities may return fire with charges against US citizens. V3 contacted the Chinese foreign office for its reaction to the news but had received no reply at the time of publication.
In related news, Cisco chief executive John Chambers has warned president Obama that ongoing spying programmes that have come to light could damage the country's economy by undermining trust in US companies.
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