US attorney-general William Barr addresses in a media conference at the justice department in Washington, DC, the US, February 10 2020. Picture: SARAH SILBIGER/GETTY IMAGES
US attorney-general William Barr addresses in a media conference at the justice department in Washington, DC, the US, February 10 2020. Picture: SARAH SILBIGER/GETTY IMAGES

Washington  — The US justice department announced charges on Monday against four members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for the 2017 hack of Equifax, a breach that exposed the personal information of about 145-million Americans.

The announcement by attorney-general William Barr follows an indictment in Atlanta accusing the Chinese military personnel of conspiring with each other to hack into Equifax’s network and stealing sensitive data on nearly half of all US citizens.

The People’s Liberation Army has more personal data on Americans than anyone else.

“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” Barr said in a statement. “Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the internet’s cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us.”

Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei, who were members of the PLA’s 54th Research Institute, were charged with three counts of conspiracy to commit computer fraud, conspiracy to commit economic espionage and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, authorities said.

They were also charged with two counts of unauthorised access and intentional damage to a protected computer, one count of economic espionage and three counts of wire fraud, according to the department.

 “We are grateful to the justice department and the FBI for their tireless efforts in determining that the military arm of China was responsible for the cyberattack on Equifax in 2017. It is reassuring that our federal law enforcement treats cybercrime — especially state-sponsored crime — with the seriousness it deserves,” Equifax CEO  Mark Begor said after the announcement.

The defendants allegedly exploited a vulnerability in the Apache Struts Web Framework software used by Equifax’s online dispute portal. They used the access to obtain login credentials that could be used to further navigate Equifax’s network and spent weeks running queries to identify the company’s database structure and searching for personal information, according to the justice department.

The hackers ultimately stored the information in temporary output files, compressed and divided the files and then downloaded the data to computers outside the US, according to the justice department.

“In total, the attackers ran about 9,000 queries on Equifax’s system, obtaining names, birth dates and social security numbers for nearly half of all American citizens,” according to a statement from thedepartment.

‘Over the top’

The hackers took steps to evade detection, too, routing traffic through about 34 servers in nearly 20 countries to mask their origin and using encrypted communication channels within Equifax’s network to blend in with normal network activity, authorities said.

“Chinese spying is over-the-top increasingly dangerous,” said Jim Lewis, a senior vice-president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The PLA has more personal data on Americans than anyone else.”

It is  the second time in a week that Barr has raised criticism of China’s behaviour on technology issues. Last week he gave a speech warning of the threats he said are posed by Chinese technology, focusing on Huawei Technologies’s 5G networks, and saying the US should consider investing in competitors Nokia and Ericsson.

“Unfortunately, the Equifax hack fits a disturbing and unacceptable pattern of state-sponsored computer intrusions and thefts by China and its citizens that have targeted personally identifiable information, trade secrets, and other confidential information,” he said.

Equifax announced in September 2017 that hackers accessed data including social security numbers, driver’s licence numbers and home addresses.

Hackers gained access to the Equifax network in May 2017 and attacked the company for 76 days, according to a House oversight committee report. Equifax noticed “red flags” in late July, and then in early August contacted the FBI, outside counsel and cybersecurity firm Mandiant. The company waited until that September to inform the public of the breach.

The breach attracted scrutiny from legislators  in Washington and criticism from consumers and banks, igniting a debate about the role credit bureaus play in lending.