Report: China arrests OPM hackers

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The Chinese government has arrested hackers accused of breaking into the Office of Personnel Management databases, according to The Washington Post.

The arrests took place prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit in September in an apparent good-faith gesture intended to improve relations with the United States, the paper reports.

The disclosure comes in the midst of ongoing cybersecurity discussions between the two nations, led by Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun and United States officials including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

No details have been released regarding the hackers' identities, including whether they have any government affiliation.

If China has arrested the true perpetrators of the hack, which exposed the personal data of 21.5 million federal employees and others, it would constitute the first instance of formal accountability for the breach.

The Chinese government has vehemently denied any involvement in the months since the hack was discovered. The Obama administration has declined to publicly blame Beijing, but officials privately indicated that China was the leading suspect.

Intelligence officials have characterized the breach as traditional intelligence-gathering, the kind of activity in which the U.S. itself engages.

Chinese hacking of both private companies and government agencies has been a constant irritant between the U.S. and China. The two nations reached an agreement during Xi’s state visit that banned both nations from conducting or supporting corporate espionage.

Two weeks ago, Xi made the same commitment as part of a series of G-20 agreements reached at the summit in Turkey.

In the weeks leading up to the September visit, the Obama administration revealed that it was preparing a broad slate of economic sanctions against China as a response to ongoing digital pilfering.

Experts say the threat of such sanctions was integral to bringing China to the table on cybersecurity. The ongoing discussions in Washington constitute the first official dialogue between the two nations on the subject since 2014, when China pulled out of a working group after the U.S. indicted five military officials for hacking.

Officials see the arrests as a sign that China is beginning to cooperate with U.S. expectations for cyber norms.

“I think that China has realized that this is an issue that really matters to the United States, and that if they’re going to continue to manage the relationship with us in a positive way, they had to figure out some way to address our concerns,” an anonymous U.S. official told the Post.

Previous reports indicated that the arrests were linked to data stolen from U.S. firms to be passed to Chinese companies. Those reports appear to have been incorrect; the arrests instead were related to the OPM breach.