"How will this latest breach affect China-US relations?"
I am not inclined to believe this, but there is an emerging theory circulating that some powerful forces (The Deep State, often mentioned by US President Trump, is the prime suspect) are out to get China down on its knees for reasons which have yet to be surmised. By these theorists' reckoning, these forces' whispered-playbook so far has these elements: a) the year-long Hong Kong “democracy” protests, which initially focused on the extradition bill pushed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam which was eventually completely set aside but has become the foundation of a call for that region's "independence" and/or abrogation of the "One Country, Two Systems"; b) the 2019 nCoV global health concern which has sent the Chinese public in a tizzy, its economy on a spin and marked China as a target for all kinds of discrimination and opprobrium and c) the US Justice Department's indictment of four Chinese military officers for reportedly hacking the files of credit rating giant Equifax.
Of these three elements, the most damaging to China and the Chinese leadership at this point are the nCoV and now the hacking issues. The Hong Kong protests have apparently slowed down, especially since the so-called pro-democracy activists who engineered the protests with a little help—if we believe the tirades from Beijing sympathizers—from the US Consulate in the island have since taken over a number of local councils, making them vulnerable to calls for them to show their wares as true blue pro-people and pro-development citizens.
On the other hand, the nCoV global health concern is apparently well on its way to a modicum of resolution with a combination of draconian lock downs and travel bans on a large swath of the globe and, of course, the push for new medical means to combat the virus. While a large number of people continues to be burdened by the draconian measures put in place in a number of countries, apparently the spread of the virus has somehow slowed down and affected countries have put the needed protocols in place including calls for people not to panic and stay calm and collected. As one pundit noted, the cost to the public and to the global economy has been wrought more by the fear and panic which accompanied the announcement about this new virus than the actual attack of the virus itself. The latest figures show that in terms of deadliness, if we may call it such, so far n-CoV is less deadly than the SARs, MERs and H1Ni viruses which prowled the earth not so long ago.
It is the news about US Attorney General William Barr announcing that the agency has indicted four Chinese military officers for the hacking of Equifax which is destined to be the bigger news from hereon. Barr called the hack "one of the data breaches in history." Equifax holds data on more than 820 million consumers as well as information on 91 million businesses.
More than 147 million Americans were affected in 2017 when hackers stole sensitive personal data including names and addresses a good number of whom are UK and Canadian customers. Allegedly, the four officers are members of the People's Liberation Army's 54th Research Institute, a specialized unit of the PLA.
The indictment noted that the group "spent weeks in the company's system, breaking into security networks and stealing personal data." It also accused the four of "stealing trade secrets including data compilation and database designs.”
Apparently, the hacking, per Equifax's records, occurred between mid-May and the end of July 2017 when the company discovered its system has been accessed and the breach undertaken on a massive scale.
Equifax reported that "the accused routed data traffic through 34 servers in nearly 20 countries to try and hide their true location." Although there is no evidence that the data has been used to hijack a person's bank account or credit card, it remains a very serious breach which resulted in the resignation of then Equifax CEO Richard Smith. Smith and other senior officials were severely criticized for failing to take proper steps to guard information and for waiting too long to inform the public about the hack. As a result, Equifax was forced to pay a $700m (£541m) settlement to the Federal Trade Commission with at least $300m being paid for identity theft services and other related expenses run up by the victims.
As reported, Mr. Barr did not mince any words in charging the "PLA Four" and the Chinese government for "a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people."
Said Barr: "Today we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the internet's cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us."
This is not the first time and will probably not the last time that the US government has brought charges against members of the Chinese military with hacking US companies. The first indictment came back in 2014 and helped lead to a deal the following year to try and restrain such activity.
And so, there are serious concerns within the US government specially those belonging to the so-called Deep State—not just about the impact on the nation's security but on the economy and all the things the American people hold dear. This has led, in fact, to debates about foreign influence in the coming US presidential elections in November.
How this latest breach in the already fragile US-China relations will eventually play out remains to be seen. But as things stand, conspiracy theories and other such almost unbelievable hypotheses about relations not only between the world's greatest powers but of nation states will abound as long as fears, biases and prejudices dictate the course of things.