Chinese lawmakers are calling for harsher penalties against hackers found to be stealing the personal data of citizens after a police-led cybercrime crackdown resulted in the arrest of 96 suspects believed to be responsible for stealing over "five billion" personal records.

On 10 March (Friday), law enforcement confirmed the operation took place across 14 provinces in China, including Liaoning and Beijing. Suspects stand accused of hacking into the web servers of internet companies and pilfering sensitive user records to then sell or trade.

According to the South China Morning Post, the probe that first launched in September 2016 found the hackers were targeting social media platforms, online gaming websites and video streaming services. They did this to steal usernames, passwords, ID cards and home addresses, police said.

Often, the compromised information was used to participate in online gambling or help forge online credit card transactions, SCMP added. One suspect, a computer engineer known only by the surname Zheng, stole troves of data from their employer, a huge e-commerce company called

Chinese state media reported that officials believe more must be done to combat the theft and sale of stolen data. One lawmaker, Ma Huateng, said roughly 1.5 million people are conducting "illegal business" on the web, citing – but not publishing – government statistics.

Ma said: "The government shall create an industry standard for web data safety.

"It should coordinate telecommunications, finance and Internet companies to better handle information leaks. A system needs to be built for people to make reports of information leaks so that relevant organisations can perform damage control as early as possible."

State outlet Xinhua News did not elaborate on what this "system" would look like but did claim the security services, in 2016, arrested over 4,000 suspects in cases linked to personal information theft. Nearly 400 were insiders in their respective industries, it said.

"Serious criminal offenses"

"The law should identify parties responsible for protecting personal information, and punitive measures shall be made harsher," said Chen Jingying, vice president of the Shanghai Lixin University of Accounting and Finance.

She added: "We need to set high fines for those who infringe upon personal information. Repeat violations shall be considered serious criminal offenses."

In a media conference on 10 March, deputy minister of public security Chen Zhimin confirmed that cyberattacks and online theft were a "prominent" threat to the country. However, he stressed that police are committed to combating online criminality, the South China Morning Post reported.