PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Investigators released new details today in a cyber-espionage operation that allegedly targeted several United States companies, nearly all of them based in the Pittsburgh area.
Five members of the Chinese military are charged with the crimes.
The FBI held a press conference Tuesday morning with more details on the case.
Federal law enforcement officials call the cyber thefts 21st century burglary.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton and FBI agents revealed more information on the five Chinese military officials accused of hacking into the computers of the local corporations to gain trade secrets.
"We talk about pipe support documents from Westinghouse; we talk about emails from the Steelworkers, as well as from Westinghouse. Once that information is located, it's packaged up and exfiltrated back to China," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Kitchen.
U.S. Steel, Westinghouse and ALCOA are among the affected corporations.
The hackers allegedly stole information on products, along with network credentials, giving them access to sensitive files, according to the investigators.
For employees of those corporations, it could have been as simple as opening an unknown email.
"The most common vector… is through the spear-fishing mail, said Special FBI Agent in Charge Scott Smith. "To get somebody to click on a link that will take you to a site that's compromise, that will download malware, or to open an attachment that has malware attached."
Once they got a foothold in a company's network they allegedly stole thousands of sensitive emails from Westinghouse, along with United Steel Worker Union strategies related to pending trade disputes.
But the cyber thefts go deeper.
"What happens is, when these companies have their proprietary designs stolen, or they're put in the position where they put out a new product that is then met with a flood of below cost, competitive products that may or may not have been stolen and they can't compete, what happens is average, ordinary citizens – our friends and neighbors – lose their jobs," added Hickton. "This case is as much about that as the victimization of these companies."
Investigators say they are working with the targeted companies and other local corporations on ways to protect themselves from cyber threats.
If brought back to the U.S., the five Chinese military officials would face trial in Pittsburgh. Experts believe that may never happen, but Hickton believes the indictments are more than justified.
"This response by law enforcement will exist as long as the threat exists, and if the threat subsides and the behavior stops, then there will be no need for further cases," he said.
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