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Feds charge Chinese state-sponsored cyber criminals who targeted COVID-19 research

U.S. charges Chinese hackers with targeting vaccine research
U.S. charges Chinese hackers with targeting v... 01:40

The Justice Department announced charges against two Chinese cybercriminals who were caught targeting COVID-19 research. For over a decade, the two hackers are alleged to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in trade secrets, intellectual property, and other private business information belonging to hundreds of companies around the world.

In an 11-count indictment, the two Chinese hackers, Li Xiaoyu, 34, and Dong Jiazh, 33, are accused of working for their own personal profit and with Chinese state support of the Guangdong State Security Department (GSSD), a regional office of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS officers were not charged in this case.

On Tuesday, John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security said the pair, who are not in U.S. custody, pose a "prolific threat" to the country's networks.

"China has now taken its place, alongside Russia, Iran, and North Korea, in that shameful club of nations that provide a safe haven for cyber criminals in exchange for those criminals being 'on call'  to work for the benefit of the state," Demers said at a press conference Tuesday. "With the top cover provided by state officials, these criminals are given free rein to victimize law abiding citizens around the world."

Here's the FBI's Most Wanted poster:

The Justice Department says Li and Dong hacked terabytes of information from the "computer systems of hundreds of victim companies, governments, non-governmental organizations, and individual dissidents, clergy, and democratic and human rights activists in the United States and abroad, including Hong Kong and China." 

Recently, U.S. law enforcement officials discovered the duo had probed the computer networks of companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, testing technology, and treatments. The charges unsealed in Spokane, Washington are the first accusing foreign individuals of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research. However, law enforcement officials do not believe that Li or Dong were ultimately able to pilfer any information from the unnamed companies targeted in California, Massachusetts and Maryland. 

"Having been caught covering up the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing is desperate for a public relations coup and may hope that it will be able to claim credit for any medical breakthroughs," Attorney General William Barr said last week in Michigan. "The ultimate ambition of China's rulers isn't to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States." 

Prosecutors say that in addition to stealing sensitive information related to military satellites, lasers and other data, Li and Dong are accused of providing the personal data of dissenters, including the email addresses and passwords belonging to a community organizer in Hong Kong, a Christian pastor, and a former Tiananmen Square protester.

The Chinese embassy in the United States did not immediately return CBS News' request for comment.

"In some instances the Defendants acted quickly to the PRC government's perceived desires," the court documents say, explaining that Li and Dong, "conduct[ed] reconnaissance on a webmail service and a messaging app when those were used by Hong Kong citizens protesting the PRC government's recent steps to curtail freedoms there."

These charges come in the wake of the Trump administration's recent efforts to crack down on Chinese economic interference and influence. Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke publicly about how the bureau opens, "a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China."

Li and Dong are believed to be in China, but the FBI has posted a wanted poster requesting any information related to the two fugitives.

Read the indictment below:

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