WASHINGTON-Four members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army have been charged with hacking into the computer systems of the credit reporting agency Equifax in 2017.
A nine-count federal indictment unsealed Monday alleges the suspects stole personal information of 145 million Americans.
The suspects were members of the PLA's 54th Research Institute, part of the Chinese military. They were identified as Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei.
"It was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people," Attorney General William Barr said.
The intrusion is the largest instance of state-sponsored theft in U.S. history, Deputy FBI Director David Bowdich said.
From about May through July 2017, the Chinese army obtained names, birthdates and Social Security numbers of 145 million Americans, and driver's license numbers for at least 10 million Americans, prosecutors wrote in the indictment.
"In a single breach, the PLA obtained sensitive personally identifiable information for nearly half of all American citizens," prosecutors wrote.
Hackers also stole credit card numbers and other personal information for 200,000 Americans and personal information for nearly a million citizens of the United Kingdom and Canada, the indictment says.
Equifax breach settlement: Wednesday is last day to file a claim for free credit monitoring or money
Equifax has agreed to pay up to $700 million to settle federal and state investigations into how it handled the data breach.
The settlement includes $425 million to help consumers affected by the breach and a restitution fund with at least $380.5 million allotted to consumer compensation. The fund will also include an additional $125 million, if the initial funds run out.
The Justice Department and the FBI have been investigating individuals for alleged theft of trade secrets and economic espionage as part of its China Initiative, launched in 2018 in response to government agencies' findings about China's practice of acquiring intellectual property and technology from other countries.
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the communist power's theft of technology and trade secrets is the "greatest long-term threat to our economic vitality."
Wray said the Chinese government will use any means necessary to "steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense'' by penetrating information technology systems, aerospace, agriculture, defense and research programs, and broad swaths of academia.
The FBI has 1,000 open investigations into suspected Chinese economic espionage and technology theft, he said.
Last month, the Justice Department charged a Harvard University professor for allegedly lying about money he received from the Chinese government. Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, made false statements about work he did for a program run by the Chinese government that seeks to lure American talent to China, according to the Justice Department.
In a separate case, two Chinese nationals who came to the United States through a work-study program by the State Department were charged last month with visa fraud, making false statements and acting as an agent of foreign government.
Contributing: Nathan Bomey, Kristine Phillips
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ: Chinese army hacked Equifax, stole 145 million Americans' data