© 2021 WBAA
712 Third St. | West Lafayette, IN 47907
(765) 494-5920
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
NPR World News

Justice Department Charges Four Chinese Military Hackers For Equifax Attack


Back in 2017, hackers broke into the computer system of the credit reporting agency Equifax. They stole trade secrets and the personal information of nearly 150 million Americans. Today the Justice Department announced charges in the case against four members of the Chinese military. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us with details. Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: To start, what are these four Chinese service members charged with?

LUCAS: So this is a nine-count indictment. The charges include economic espionage, wire fraud and hacking. Court papers say that the men illegally gained access to Equifax's network through a vulnerability in the company's online dispute portal, and then once they were inside the network, they rummaged about and ultimately vacuumed up personally identifiable information - so things like names, dates of birth, social security numbers - for around 145 million Americans. They also stole the driver's license numbers for another 10 million Americans. So in this single computer intrusion, Chinese military hackers got sensitive personal information for around half of all American citizens. Now, it's important to say that these defendants are not in custody. They are believed to be in China.

SHAPIRO: Why would the Chinese military be interested in getting personal data on 150 million Americans?

LUCAS: Well, Attorney General William Barr announced these charges today, and he framed this breach as part of a broader campaign of cyberattacks by China in recent years. Here's a bit of what he said.


WILLIAM BARR: This kind of attack on American industry is of a piece with other Chinese illegal acquisitions of sensitive personal data. For years, we have witnessed China's voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans.

LUCAS: Barr mentioned the 2015 hack of the Office of Personnel Management. More than 20 million security clearance files for federal employees were compromised in that. He also mentioned the hacks of Marriott Hotels and the health insurance company Anthem. All of this information that's been stolen has value. It has economic value, but it also has intelligence value. Barr said that China can use it to help its development of artificial intelligence tools and also to target U.S. government officials, including folks in the intelligence business. Now, all of that said, in terms of this Equifax breach, officials said today that at this point, they have not seen any of this stolen data being put to use yet. That doesn't mean, though, that this hasn't been a huge pain and inconvenience, of course, for the tens of millions of Americans who were affected by this.

SHAPIRO: Ryan, I want to ask you about a different story coming out of the Justice Department today, which is that the attorney general also spoke publicly about Ukraine and said that the Justice Department would be open to accepting Ukraine-related information from Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. What's going on there?

LUCAS: So this all ties back into impeachment. Remember that Giuliani played a central role in pushing Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe Biden. Giuliani told NPR last week that he's still investigating Biden. He wouldn't say whether he'd provided the information that he's collected to the Justice Department. Well, today the attorney general said that the department's doors are open to anybody who wants to provide information that they think is relevant.


BARR: We had established an intake process in the field so that any information coming in about Ukraine could be carefully scrutinized by the department and its Intelligence Community partners.

LUCAS: Now, Barr did say that the department needs to be wary of information coming out of Ukraine. He said they can't take it at face value, and he said that that goes for any information taken coming from Giuliani. He also stopped short, it's important to say, of committing to take any action. What this does seem to suggest, though, is that this whole Ukraine matter is likely to live on through this whole election year.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.