Rep. Patrick Meehan (U.S. House of Representatives) Rep. Patrick Meehan (U.S. House of Representatives)

Editor's note: On Monday, the Justice Department announced the indictment of five Chinese military employees on criminal hacking charges related to cyberespionage for commercial gain. The indictment marks the first time the government has gone after alleged agents of foreign governments for cyber crimes. The U.S. government alleges the five were part of a Chinese army unit dedicate to hacking, and stole trade secrets and strategic information from U.S. businesses that could be used to give an economic advantage to Chinese companies -- including state sponsored businesses. The Chinese government has dismissed the accusations, calling them based on "fabricated facts" and suspended its involvement in a joint effort to discuss cyberespionage.

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R - Pa.) chairs the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and security technologies and recently returned from a trip to China where cybersecurity was a major topic of discussion. He's also a former federal prosecutor from Pennsylvania, where many of the companies allegedly victimized by the indicted individuals are located.

The Switch spoke to Meehan Monday evening about about the indictments. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction to Monday's indictment? 

I think this was a very important, but necessary step by the Department of Justice to address a very serious problem of Chinese cyberespionage. The theft of intellectual property has been growing and it's costing United States businesses billions of dollars.

And I know you were recently in China -- I'm assuming this came up?

It is very specifically an issue that was raised with the Chinese at virtually every level. We had very specific discussions about intellectual property and the protection of intellectual property and the responsibility to abide by the rule of law in international business matters.

I specifically raised it personally with Qin Gang, a principle Chinese official for external affairs, and we raised it with the premier as well. The response was very planned and consistent on their part -- or should I say disciplined and consistent. At no time did they admit to the actions except to suggest that cyberespionage was an issue they were concerned about in China as well for their own companies.

Have you seen any of the Chinese response to today's indictments?

I haven't seen any specific response, but I don't expect them to give us any more of response than what they gave us in China.

This is a criminal indictment identifying people from the People's Liberation Army, which is a branch of the state that goes directly to the government. That's was a point that I made specifically when I talked about cyberespionage -- that this is state-sponsored cyberespionage. It comes from the highest levels of China. It's happening within the army.

So you believe the individuals were acting as part of a state-sponsored mission?

Yes I do. They don't act without authority and permission. This was the essence of the concerns we raised with Chinese officials at the highest level. I asked how it is that they would look at this kind of an issue and be unwilling to be more forthright in our discussions on that. I had diplomats and others explain to me that some of it is a distinction of a perspective from the Chinese wherein many of the relationships in the government sector and the business sector are intertwined. Even many of the companies are state-sponsored and they don't see the distinction that we do here in the U.S., where we have independent corporations much like U.S. Steel and Westinghouse and others that have been identified in these indictments an whose property has been stolen. The Chinese would suggest that they are intertwine with our government, -- and we know that of course to be false.

Can you delve a little more specifically into the companies in the indictment and how you feel this affected them?

Intellectual property often times represents significant investments in research and development -- which is propriety information, often innovative information that allows companies to create cutting edge technology and products for the global market. A second form of the espionage occurs when secret negotiations are invaded and the ability for the Chinese to know ahead of time what price quotations or other kinds of specific bid information will be contained in the documents of private corporations. That's theft. it also creates a fraud on a legitimate transaction. These are examples of the very things that were putting these U.S.-based companies at a competitive disadvantage

Is there anything your subcommittee specifically plans to do about this issue?

Of course, a principle aspect of the law that we passed was to create more capacity to protect against incursions in the first place -- to enable us to be able to better defend against the cyberattacks by being able to share information better about the identity and nature of the cyber activity that's taking place. We have laws on the books and I think these were strong and appropriate utilization of those laws.

This is a strong statement. It will probably be partnered with efforts to be consistent in our message of an insistence to adherence to the rule of law -- both our criminal laws and agreements with the WTO [World Trade Organization].