A Chinese businessman used the cover of his aviation firm to steal data on US military aircraft programmes which was then hawked around companies in his home country, the US Department of Justice has alleged.
According to the 50-page indictment, Canadian resident and owner of tech firm Lode Tech, Su Bin, worked with two accomplices to pilfer data from Boeing and Lockheed Martin between 2009 and 2013.
Aircraft targeted included the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets although most of the effort seems to have been directed towards the aging C-17 military transport. All told, 65 GB of data on this design were reportedly stolen.
What US officials haven't yet revealed is exactly how Su Bin hacked US systems, nor what was stolen. That the target was the C-17 tends to suggest that the accused was looking for data of commercial rather than strategic value; China is known to have been developing a similar aircraft and inside information on the sometimes troubled C-17 programme would have been seen as valuable.
The US plans to extradite Su from Canada.
"We remain deeply concerned about cyber-enabled theft of sensitive information and we have repeatedly made it clear that the United States will continue using all the tools our government possesses to strengthen cybersecurity and confront cybercrime," DOJ spokesperson Marc Raimondi was quoted as telling the New York Times.
Although the affair marks a departure from the usual story of organised Chinese-based hackers attacking US firms with specially-written malware, it is not unprecedented.
In 2009, an experienced engineer with Being and Rockwell International, Dongfan 'Greg' Chung , was arrested for stealing papers on the Space Shuttle, Delta IV rockets and military transport aircraft on behalf of the Chinese Government. Although that case involved old-fashioned paper theft, Chung was nevertheless accused of amassing $3 million in payments for his spying. In 2010, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in California.
A report a year later from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive mentioned China and Russia as industrial espionage enemies number one and two.
More recently, the US decided to name specific members of the Chinese military whom it holds responsible for a long-running campaign of industrial spying against US interests.