The United States justice department on Wednesday announced charges against Chinese citizens, believed to be tied to state intelligence, who hacked more than 100 companies in America and overseas, including social-media providers and universities.
Federal prosecutors said the five had been charged with hacking into software development companies, video game companies, government agencies, think tanks, and universities in the US and Hong Kong.
The suspects also allegedly targeted telecommunications providers in Australia, Tibet, Chile, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.
According to the charging documents, the alleged hackers stole source code, customer account data, and valuable business information. These intrusions also facilitated the defendants' other criminal schemes, including ransomware and "crypto-jacking" schemes, the latter of which refers to the group's unauthorised use of victim computers to "mine" cryptocurrency.
The FBI says that the hackers, part of a group known as APT 41, were allowed to operate by the Chinese government, which has made no effort to curb the hacking activities of their own citizens.
The announcement reflects what American officials say is China's unmatched campaign of digital espionage against the US for counter-intelligence purposes. Jeffrey Rosen, Deputy Attorney General, expressed exasperation with Chinese authorities, saying they were at the very least turning a blind eye to cyber-espionage.
"We know the Chinese authorities to be at least as able as the law enforcement authorities here and in like-minded states to enforce laws against computer intrusions," Mr Rosen said. "But they choose not to." He further alleged that one of the Chinese defendants had boasted to a colleague that he was "very close" to China's ministry of state security and would be protected "unless something very big happens."
The charges, laid out across three separate indictments unsealed on Wednesday, build on several other cases brought against Chinese actors during the Donald Trump administration.
Along with the alleged hackers, two Malaysian businessmen were arrested on Monday and charged with conspiring to profit from the computer intrusions. The defendants were in custody in Malaysia but were likely to fight extradition to the US.
The US justice department says authorities are working with Microsoft, Facebook, and others to try to thwart the hacking efforts.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately return an email seeking comment. Beijing has repeatedly denied responsibility for hacking in the face of a mounting pile of indictments from US authorities.