Equifax, an international credit reporting agency, was plundered by four members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2017. The full scale of the heist by the Beijing-based group is coming to light only now. Tens of millions of Americans also had their personal information including social security numbers and names stolen by the hackers, the Justice Department said.
An estimated 145 million people around the globe are thought to have been affected by the breach.
Investigators fear the information could be used to blackmail people working for intelligence agencies or in politics.
It marks the largest state-sponsored theft of people’s private data ever to be uncovered.
Last week four members of the Chinese military were identified by the FBI and charged with breaking into Equifax and taking names and details stored in the company’s databases.
The accused are members of the PLA’s hacking division known as the 54th Research Institute.
Equifax said last week that the names and dates of birth of 13.1 million Britons were stolen from databases in Atlanta, Georgia.
This figure included an estimated 841,000 British citizens who fell victim to further crimes, having data such as driving licence details and phone numbers stolen.
Up to 15,000 people in the UK are thought to have had passwords, security questions and answers as well as some credit card details pilfered.
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Information belonging to nearly half the population of the US was stolen, the indictment says.
The cunning team carried out their task over a 10-week period.
The case comes as the Trump administration has warned against what it sees as the growing political and economic influence of China, and efforts by Beijing to collect data on Americans and steal scientific research and innovation.
The administration has also been pressing allies not to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to be part of their 5G wireless networks due to cybersecurity concerns.
Donald Trump did not support Boris Johnson’s decision to allow the Chinese telecommunications giant a role in building the UK’s 5G network.
The two leaders are understood to have had an angry phone call in recent days over the controversial issue.
The four suspects are based in China and none is in custody.
But US officials nonetheless view the criminal charges as a powerful deterrent to foreign hackers and a warning to other countries that American law enforcement has the capability to pinpoint individual culprits behind hacks.
“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” US Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
“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,” he added.