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The US says the Chinese military hacked Equifax. Here’s how.

William BarrWilliam Barr

The data breach at US credit agency Equifax in 2017 was one of the biggest thefts of sensitive personal information of all time—and according to a new indictment unveiled today by the US Department of Justice, it was carried out by Chinese military hackers.

Attorney General William Barr announced charges against four Chinese military hackers for breaking into Equifax and stealing trade secrets as well as the personal data of 145 million Americans, nearly half the population.

The tactics: A critical software vulnerability in the web application software was publicly disclosed on March 7, 2017. The vulnerability had not yet been updated or fixed by Equifax two months later, when US authorities say Chinese hackers were actively using it to break into Equifax’s networks and computers to steal  sensitive data including names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers.

The attackers: The newly unsealed indictment names Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei as the responsible hackers, identifying them as members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s 54th Research Institute. 

The indictment, the result of a two-year investigation, details how these Chinese operatives worked to access, steal, and make off with the mountains of data. The hackers “ran approximately 9,000 [SQL] queries on Equifax’s system,” says the indictment, and “created an archive containing 49 directories. Once created ... split it into 600MB segments which were then downloaded from the Equifax network to a Dutch server via HTTP.”

“This data has economic value, and these thefts can feed China’s development of artificial-intelligence tools or intelligence-targeting packages,” Barr said at the Justice Department today.

The big picture: “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,” Barr said. “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.”

Today’s announcement is the latest in a growing list of US indictments against Chinese hackers who American officials say are engaged in a national strategy of stealing American intellectual property and data as a way to challenge and surpass the US on the world stage. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied hacking charges.