Two of the defendants, Zha Rong and Chai Meng, are officers with the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security (JSSD), a provincial arm of the MSS.
"The conspirators' ultimate goal was to steal, among other data, intellectual property and confidential business information, including information related to a turbofan engine used in commercial airliners", the DoJ said in a statement released Tuesday.
The officers are accused of deploying a group of hackers to steal information on the technology of a turbofan engine being developed by an unnamed French aerospace manufacturer and a USA -based company.
The turbofan engine targeted by members of the conspiracy was being developed through a partnership between Company I and an aerospace company based in the US.
The hackers sent spearphishing emails to company employees and planted malware into corporate computer networks, according to the indictment.
"State-sponsored hacking is a direct threat to our national security", said U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman.
Unless the United States authorities manage to grab the accused Chinese nationals on USA soil or in nations where U.S. extradition is supported, we're not sure how the DoJ will be able to bring its charges to bear.
The former counsel for cyber investigations at the DoJ's national security division and current partner at the King & Spalding law firm Scott Ferber took notice of how intelligence officers were working with apparent private-sector hackers.More news: Pentagon Deploying Over 5,200 Troops to Southwestern Border to Stop Migrant Caravans
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The indictment is the third time since September that federal prosecutors have named Chinese intelligence officers as defendants in criminal hacks against U.S. companies.
"This is just the beginning", he said in a statement.
The first attack occurred on January 8, 2010, when hackers got inside the networks of Capstone Turbine, a gas turbine manufacturer based in Los Angeles.
"The concerted effort to steal, rather than simply purchase, commercially available products should offend every company that invests talent, energy, and shareholder money into the development of products".
John Brown, FBI special agent in charge of the San Diego field office, vowed that Chinese criminals would be held "accountable regardless of their attempts to hide their illicit activities and identities".
"We will redouble our efforts to safeguard America's ingenuity and investment", he said. It lists 13 companies as targets of the operation, with offices located in France, the United Kingdom, and eight cities in the U.S. The hackers allegedly used several tactics including injecting malware into the companies' computer systems.
He said: "It reflects how China is conducting cyber-enabled commercial espionage".
Neither company was identified in the indictment, and none of the alleged conspirators is in USA custody. Both employees worked at the manufacturer's office in Suzhou, China and eventually planted the Sakula malware on a company laptop through a USB stick. The malware, called Sakula, was created to exploit vulnerabilities in the Internet Explorer web browser.