Indictments Against Chinese, Blackshades Ring a Bold Move by DOJ

NEWS ANALYSIS: The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI go to new lengths to nab cyber-criminals around the world and find their efforts work—at least in Europe.

To say that the feds have been busy would be an understatement. On the same day that the Department of Justice announced indictments against five Chinese officials for hacking into U.S. companies' computers and stealing secrets, the FBI unsealed the arrests of around 100 other hackers for using the BlackShades malware to steal information from computers.

While these were separate, unrelated actions, the mood of the Obama administrations is clear. Foreign threats to U.S. cyber interests would be dealt with strongly—strongly enough in fact that the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Wall Street Journal that the United States made up its allegations.

"This U.S. move, which is based on fabricated facts, grossly violates the basic norms governing international relations and jeopardizes China-U.S. cooperation and mutual trust," spokesman Qin Gang said in The Journal article. "The Chinese government, the Chinese military and their relevant personnel have never engaged or participated in cyber-theft of trade secrets. The U.S. accusation against Chinese personnel is purely ungrounded and absurd."

In its action against the Chinese military officials, the Justice Department took the unusual step of providing specifics and photos of the alleged offenders, and it produced a chart of who it says is guilty of what. The action against the global network of BlackShades malware was handled differently.

In its move against the BlackShades network, the FBI worked with its European counterparts to find and arrest about 100 people who are alleged to have installed software necessary to have distributed the malware to computers around the world. Those people are in FBI custody or in the custody of the intelligence services of their respective countries.

Together, these indictments and arrests signal a new, tougher stance on international cyber-crime. In the process, the United States is making the alleged perpetrators accountable for their activities.

The move against the Chinese officials is a little less direct, however. The chances of the Chinese government actually extraditing its officials to the United States to stand trial are nil. As long as those officials stay in China, they're probably safe. But if they leave the country, they'll be viewed as international fugitives and most countries through which they might travel could decide to arrest them and turn them over to the United States.

It's also clear that the indictments and arrests have only just begun. "With our unique criminal and national security authorities, we will continue to use all legal tools at our disposal to counter cyber-espionage from all sources," said FBI Director James Comey in a prepared statement. Comey noted that there are many more victims and many more steps to be accomplished.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...