The Justice Department unsealed charges Wednesday against five Chinese citizens and two Malaysian nationals, accusing them in a global hacking campaign that targeted more than 100 entities, including the billion-dollar online gaming industry, federal authorities said.
While the suspects were not charged as part of an operation sanctioned by the Chinese government as in previous cases, federal prosecutors and the FBI believed the group’s far-flung activities had won the tacit approval of Beijing.
The broad range of targets, particularly the choice of universities, think tanks and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, signaled that the suspects were likely working for the benefit the Chinese government, officials said.
The group allegedly operated as part of a larger operation known as "Advanced Persistent Threat" or APT-41.
"Cyber-security experts have referred to APT-41’s activities as one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor in recent years," Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said.
The two Malaysian suspects were arrested Sunday evening by officials in Sitiawan, Malaysia. The five Chinese defendants remain at large and are believed to be living in China.
The wide-ranging attacks, Rosen said, were "turbo-charged" by a technique in which the hackers allegedly planted so-called "back-doors" into software products that later allowed hacker access to the software providers' customers.
Beyond the gaming industry intrusions, in which hackers allegedly gained access to stores of digital currency, the suspects targeted software development companies, computer hardware manufacturers and telecommunication providers.
Prosecutors did not identify the victims in court documents, saying that they did not want to expose them to additional harm.
Federal authorities said they would be seeking the extradition of the Malaysian suspects, but lamented a continued lack of cooperation by Chinese authorities in pursuing the other defendants.
The case also underscored ongoing tensions between Beijing and Washington, where the Trump administration has sought to punish China for its aggressive cyber-espionage programs. Last month, China was identified in a national threat assessment, along with Russia and Iran, related to the November presidential election.
The analysis, prepared by the National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, concluded that China views President Donald Trump as "unpredictable" and prefers that he not win re-election.
"Ideally, I would be thanking Chinese law enforcement authorities for their cooperation in this matter and the five Chinese hackers would now be in custody awaiting trial," Rosen said Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the record of recent years tells us that the Chinese Communist Party has a demonstrated history of choosing a different path, that of making China safe for their own cyber criminals, so long as they help with its goals of stealing intellectual property and stifling freedom."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 5 Chinese citizens at-large in alleged APT-41 global hacking campaign