U.S. officials later today will charge several individuals connected to China's military with hacking American firms, online reports said early Monday.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will announce the charges, the first ever leveled against employees of a foreign power, that will include allegations of theft of trade secrets and economic espionage, ABC News, NBC News, and the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) said Monday, citing anonymous sources.
Five will be charged, the news outlets said, but differed on how they described the individuals' links to China's government. ABC and NBC only noted that the five were government employees or officials, while the Wall Street Journal claimed that they were members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's military.
According to the newspaper, the five allegedly worked for the PLA's Unit 61398, based in Shanghai.
Unit 61398 had been previously tapped by American security professionals as responsible for hacking firms in the U.S. and other Western countries. The U.S. government had also previously called on China to rein in its hackers, but officials there have regularly dismissed such charges.
The U.S. and China have traded hacking accusations for years, with the former claiming that the latter is deeply involved in widespread computer attacks to steal trade secrets and intellectual property, and disrupt infrastructure. Today's charges would considerably increase the tension between the two nations over hacking, which at times have been discussed at the highest levels.
Last year, for instance, President Obama addressed cybersecurity issues with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
A formal announcement is expected later today from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; senior officials from the FBI; and John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's national security division, in a Washington D.C. press conference.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about cybercrime and hacking in Computerworld's Cybercrime and Hacking Topic Center.