DOJ: China Allegedly Behind Equifax Breach

February 10, 2020 11:43 AM , Updated February 24, 2020 9:29 AM
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Red key on a computer keyboard with a Chinese flag on it and the word 'hack' written on it

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Four members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were charged last week with hacking into Equifax servers and stealing Americans’ personal data and the company’s valuable trade secrets according to an announcement from the Justice Department.

Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei are the individuals named in the 9-count indictment. The four men have not been taken into custody and are wanted by the FBI.

“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” said Attorney General William P. Barr, who made the announcement. “Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the Internet’s cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us. Unfortunately, the Equifax hack fits a disturbing and unacceptable pattern of state-sponsored computer intrusions and thefts by China and its citizens that have targeted personally identifiable information, trade secrets, and other confidential information.”

The Justice Department said that the four defendants ran approximately 9,000 queries on Equifax’s system, obtaining names, birth dates and social security numbers for nearly half of all American citizens (145 million in total) and were able to download the data to computers outside of the United States. The hackers also obtained driver’s license numbers for at least 10 million Americans and credit card numbers for 200,000 Americans.

FBI director Christopher Wray said recently that China’s pursuit of technology and trade secrets represents the “greatest long-term threat to our economic vitality” and said that the FBI has 1,000 open investigations into suspected Chinese economic espionage and technology theft.

China was also named as being behind the data breaches at the Office of Personnel Management from a few years ago.

Equifax settled a class action lawsuit over the 2017 data breach in which it agreed to pay up to $700 million over the incident.

China and the TSP’s I Fund

The news about China and Equifax is interesting since the country was also the basis of a fierce debate over a change coming to the I Fund in the Thrift Savings Plan.

Some lawmakers were concerned that the decision by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board to use a different investment index as the basis for the I Fund would leave federal employees and retirees vulnerable by investing some of their money in Chinese companies.

The FRTIB, however, defended the decision, noting that using the alternate investment index was no different from what other large companies do in their 401(k) plans and that investors stand to gain better returns from the alternate international index.

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Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.

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