A court document recently unsealed by the US Justice Department has stirred renewed concerns over China’s long arm of online censorship, laying bare the regime’s obsession with information controls and its fear of dissent.
The sole defendant named in the 47-page document was Xinjiang Jin, a Zhejiang-based Chinese national formerly employed by a US telecommunications company which was soon identified as the video-conferencing unicorn Zoom. According to the indictment, Jin was accused of participating in a censorship scheme orchestrated by Chinese authorities to disrupt online events commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre and transferring to China approximately 23,000 US-based user identifications including names, email and IP addresses. In a company blog post, Zoom confirmed their full cooperation with US authorities in protecting American interests from foreign influence and pledged restricting its China-based employees’ access to internal data stored on their US servers.
The post continued to add further details on top of what has been made available through the court document. In September 2019, the Chinese government abruptly shut down Zoom’s operation on the mainland, citing non-compliance with Chinese law. China has long been known to maintain tight information controls over its population by removing from the Internet any information unacceptable to the regime. A US State Department report estimated that China recruited tens of thousands of people in 2018 just for censoring online contents while private internet companies are obliged to do the same with their own in-house staff. Zoom is no exception. Specifically, Chinese authorities demanded that Zoom transfer all China-based user data to China and designate an in-house liaison to act on orders given by their law enforcement officers.
As it turned out, Jin was chosen to fill the ill-fated liaison position. In his capacity as Zoom’s Security Technical Leader, Jin worked closely with officers from the Ministry of State Security (which is responsible for counterintelligence, espionage and political security) and the Ministry of Public Security (which is in charge of routine law enforcement and monitoring of political dissidents). Upon receipt of their orders, Jin would reach out to his colleagues in the US for implementation.
In November 2019, Zoom was finally allowed to resume its Chinese operation after the company struck a Faustian Bargain with Beijing by agreeing to implement a “rectification plan” which presumably included measures to comply with most, if not all, censorship requirements imposed by the Chinese government. Zoom also agreed to migrate data belonging to one million Chinese users from the US to China, thereby making them fall under the Chinese jurisdiction unknowingly. Apparently, safeguarding user privacy and free flow of information was beyond Zoom’s immediate concerns at that particular moment in time.
With the censorship scheme in place, Jin and his conspirators began monitoring online activities carried out by dissidents in the US and beyond. Among them were Hong Kong-based activist Lee Cheuk-yan and US-based former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, respectively redacted as “Dissident-1” and “Dissident-2” in the document. Jin and others also moved ahead to suspend dissident accounts by filing multiple complaints to Zoom, alleging Term-Of-Services violations. To instill a false sense of legitimacy, they fabricated evidence in their complaints with a series of alias email accounts created under different identities ranging from high-profile dissidents to Islamic State terrorists. Profile pictures of some of those accounts were set to display images suggestive of terrorism or pornography. Intriguingly, two of those email accounts were found to have been created from the same IP address hosted by an undisclosed internet service provider in Hong Kong.
Seemingly, Beijing is taking advantage of the golden opportunity created by the pandemic-friendly video-conferencing platform to collect intelligence on Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. This can be inferred from an email correspondence between Jin and a Public Security officer who requested “some detailed lists of our daily monitoring; such as Hong Kong demonstrations” to be compiled from Zoom’s internal data. Jin further emphasized that all censorship activities would be “classified as secret internally and externally”.
For now, Beijing’s secretive endeavors to censor critical speech and impose social controls on Zoom have been foiled. What’s more, the regime’s malicious tactics to infiltrate online social groups have also been nakedly exposed to the world through the disclosure of Jin’s indictment. Fortunately for Jin, he needs not worry too much about the possibility of being prosecuted according to US law, as long as he does not step foot on American soil for the rest of his life, just like those sanctioned Hong Kong and China officials who are barred from entering the US. For Zoom and other high-flying technology companies with substantial business dealings in China, all they need to remember is to avoid being morally compromised with evil.
(Dr Jack Kwan is a MIT-trained consultant based in Boston.)
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