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The Justice Department on Monday announced a first-of-its-kind criminal cyber-espionage case against Chinese military officials, accusing them of hacking into major U.S. companies to steal trade secrets.

Prosecutors described the alleged crimes as “21st century burglary.” In response, the Chinese foreign ministry reportedly said the accusations were made up and warned the case would damage U.S.-China relations.

Attorney General Eric Holder and other federal law enforcement officials revealed the indictment Monday morning, accusing five Shanghai-based Chinese officials of targeting the U.S. nuclear power, metals and solar products industries. The alleged victims include major U.S. firms like Alcoa World Alumina, Westinghouse Electric and U.S. Steel Corp.

Holder said the hackers were targeting a total of six American companies, stealing information deemed useful to companies in China, including state-owned firms. He stressed that the alleged hacking is far different than the type of intelligence gathering conducted by governments around the world, in that this involved cyber-espionage for the sheer purpose of gaining the commercial upper hand against U.S. businesses.

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