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WASHINGTON — By taking the unprecedented step of indicting Chinese government hackers, the U.S. government is in effect saying China has gone outside the norm of conventional spying by stealing data to benefit private companies, analysts say.

The U.S., China and other nations regularly hack into other nations' computer networks for traditional espionage reasons, such as getting military and intelligence information, analysts say.

But U.S. officials have consistently said that Chinese spying for the benefit of private companies oversteps the bounds of traditional espionage done for national security reasons.

Chinese officials have said the United States is acting hypocritically, since it also engages in cyber espionage.

The Justice Department said Monday it charged five Chinese hackers with breaking into U.S. companies, stealing reams of data and then providing it to Chinese firms.

The United States engages in cyber spying activities but does not penetrate commercial companies for the benefit of domestic firms, said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The United States doesn't steal Chinese technologies and give it to U.S. companies," Lewis said.

U.S. officials have met regularly with their Chinese counterparts in an effort to get them to cease these activities.

"We gave them plenty of opportunities to scale back these activities," said Richard Bejtlich, the chief security strategist at FireEye, a cyberdefense company. Bejtlich was the chief security officer at Mandiant, which produced an extensive report on China cyber spying.

Lewis said he was in a meeting with U.S. and Chinese officials when a Chinese colonel said the distinction between commercial and national security espionage is not so clear cut in China.

The indictment also raises questions about international norms and regulations involving cyber activities. "The international law is unclear," said Michael Schmitt, the director of the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College.

The United States was within its rights to charge individuals for violating American laws since there are clear laws governing theft, he said.

But indicting China as a nation would be more difficult, since countries haven't agreed on regulations that would apply to cyber activities across borders.

"When you can say a country has violated international law it's a more powerful statement," Schmitt said.

Follow @jimmichaels on Twitter.

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