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US indictment alleges broad Chinese effort to steal turbofan data

The US Department of Justice has levied new charges against 10 alleged Chinese spies who purportedly sought to steal proprietary corporate information, including information related to commercial aircraft turbofan engines.

An indictment filed in US District Court for the Southern District of California comes three weeks after the DOJ revealed it indicted another Chinese national as part of a similar conspiracy that targeted aerospace companies including GE Aviation.

"Members of the conspiracy targeted, among other things, data and information related to a turbofan engine used in commercial jetliners," says the latest indictment. "At the time of the intrusions, a Chinese state-owned aerospace company was working to develop a comparable engine for use in commercial aircraft manufactured in China and elsewhere."

The DOJ alleges that the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security – the provincial arm of China's counter-intelligence unit – managed a network of spies who hacked Western aerospace companies' computers using a variety of methods.

The conspiracy occurred between 2010 and 2015, and "focused on the theft of technology underlying a turbofan engine used in US and European commercial airliners", DOJ says.

The government lists 13 unnamed companies as targeted. Most are based in the USA, including in Massachusetts, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oregon and Wisconsin. Also targeted were an Australian company, two UK companies and a French aircraft engine maker.

The indictment calls particular attention to the French engine maker, which it describes as developing a turbofan engine in "partnership with a US company. The French company also has offices in Suzhou, DOJ says.

The US Government provides no other information identifying the French company, but Safran Aircraft Engines fits the DOJ's description.

Safran owns CFM International in partnership with US-based GE, the victim of the corporate theft described in the DOJ's earlier indictment. That indictment was filed in April but became public on 10 October. It outlined a similar scheme to steal engine information from GE.

CFM produces the Leap engine, which powers Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320neo-family aircraft.

Safran did not immediately response to a request for comment.

DOJ says China's state security agency planted two Chinese nationals in jobs at the French company's Suzhou office in 2013 and 2014. Those spies hacked the French company's computer, says the US government.

The indictment also notes the alleged theft occurred as a Chinese aerospace company was developing a "comparable engine".

DOJ does not name the Chinese company, but the previous indictment calls attention to, but does not implicate, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) and Aviation Industries of China (AVIC).

AVIC has been developing a turbofan engine for the COMAC C919, an in-development aircraft that is also offered with CFM's Leap-1C turbofan.

"Members of the conspiracy hacked [companies] … to steal sensitive data from these companies that could be used by Chinese entities to build the same or similar engine without incurring substantial research and development expenses," DOJ says.

“The threat posed by Chinese government-sponsored hacking activity is real and relentless,” says John Brown, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's special agent in charge of the San Diego field office, in a media release. The US government "is sending a strong message to the Chinese government and other foreign governments involved in hacking activities."

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