nito - Fotolia

Chinese man admits conspiring to hack US military secrets

A Chinese national working in Canada has pleaded guilty to helping hackers in China access US military secrets from defence contractors, including fighter jet blueprints

A Chinese national has admitted to conspiring to hack into the computer systems of major US defence contractors to steal military hardware secrets.

Fifty-year-old Su Bin was arrested while working in Canada in 2014 and extradited to the US to stand trial. He faces up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine when sentenced on 13 July 2016.

Su ran a Chinese aviation technology company with an office in Canada and was in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship when he was arrested, according to the BBC.

The man, who used the aliases Stephen Su and Stephen Subin, is believed to have been working for “commercial gain” with a Chinese hacking group seeking data relating to military aircraft.

The US assistant attorney general for national security, John Carlin, said the case sends a strong message that stealing from the US and US companies has a significant cost. “We can and will find these criminals and bring them to justice,” he said in a statement.

Su admitted working with people in China between October 2008 and March 2014 to gain unauthorised access to computer networks in the US.

The targeted networks included some in California belonging to military contractor Boeing.

Read more about US-China cyber relations

Su is believed to have helped the hacking group in China by advising them on what companies and files to target and translating the stolen data before emailing it to the group in China.

The stolen data included blueprints of F-35 and F-22 fighter jets and technical data relating to Boeing's C-17 transport aircraft, according to the International Business Times.

Claims and counter-claims

hackers based in China have been routinely accused of attacking US businesses and government agencies, including the recent breach of OPM systems that affected tens of millions of people, while China has accused US hackers of targeting China.

In June 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed the US had hacked hundreds of targets in China as part of more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations worldwide.

On 25 September 2015, US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping agreed that neither government would support the cyber theft of intellectual property (IP).

The agreement appeared to be making progress, with reports that China had arrested a number of Chinese hackers at the request of the US. However, just one month later, the US security company CrowdStrike claimed that hackers linked to the Chinese government had attempted to hack into at least five US technology and two pharmaceutical companies.

Same hackers

CrowdStrike said the attacks came from several groups, including one previously identified as Deep Panda, and used attack software previously seen in attacks on US defence contractor VAE and health insurer Anthem.

A report published in July 2015 claimed the same Chinese hackers were behind the attacks on Anthem, United Airlines and the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

According to CrowdStrike’s co-founder, Dmitri Alperovitch, the objective appeared to be the theft of IP and trade secrets.

In recent months, US authorities have expressed strong determination to pursue groups engaged in cyber espionage against US companies.

Read more on Hackers and cybercrime prevention