Five members of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) have been charged by the United States for allegedly stealing trade secrets from American companies in the nuclear power, steel, and solar industries from 2010 through 2014, according to the New York Times.
The timing of the charges couldn't be more inflammatory, arriving as the United States struggles with yet another wave of revelations about its own spying program, and as China attempts to position itself as a major Internet-centric world power.
This is the first time actual charges have been brought against members of China's government. In previous accusations about stolen data, the Pentagon claimed China was stealing U.S. high-tech secrets to bolster its military power but didn't name specific names.
U.S. officials cited a report by security firm Mandiant, whose research indicated a huge number of attacks on American companies and government agencies appeared to have been orchestrated by the cyber espionage arm of the PLA, "Unit 61398."
Mandiant has been tracking Unit 61398's activities for some time, and in 2013 reported on a spear-phishing attack campaign conducted by the PLA that appeared aimed at journalists in China and elsewhere in Asia. The attack's originating servers were also used in a previous series of cyber attacks against Tibetan activists, another broad hint that the PLA's cyber espionage campaigns involve political targets as well as industrial ones.
The U.S. is not the only Western power to make accusations of industrial espionage against China. Britain's MI5 reported in 2007 that Chinese agents had attempted to steal industrial secrets from Rolls-Royce and Royal Dutch Shell. And InfoWorld's Bob Violino wrote in 2012 how cellphones and laptops brought to China by foreign government and corporate personnel are prime espionage targets.
But awareness of the U.S.'s own cyber espionage program casts a pall over these accusations. The NSA has endured a seemingly never-ending series of unnerving revelations about its activities, most recently the disclosure of a program designed to physically intercept Cisco routers destined for customers outside the U.S. and install surveillance software on them.
This latest revelation is particularly ironic given that a major source of tension between the U.S.and China has been accusations against Chinese network equipment and cellphone maker Huawei. Worries about Huawei's close ties to China's state's security apparatus, and concerns about insecure code used in some of Huawei's routers, led to a congressional investigation into whether Huawei's products were being used for cyber espionage. But it turns out Huawei was itself the target of an NSA spying program, running since 2007 and designed to determine whether any ties exist between Huawei and the PLA.
Until now, specific names have not been released and accusations have been levied against government agencies or the general state apparatus. For the first time, the U.S. is preparing to charge specific individuals -- whether or not they can be ever be brought to trial. It's a move likely to further increase tensions between China and the U.S.
This story, "U.S. charges Chinese Army members with cyber espionage," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.