Technology

How a Chinese agent utilised LinkedIn to hunt for targets

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Dickson Yeo/Facebook

Jun Wei Yeo, an bold and freshly enrolled Singaporean PhD university student, was no doubt delighted when he was invited to give a presentation to Chinese lecturers in Beijing in 2015.

His doctorate analysis was about Chinese international plan and he was about to find firsthand how the increasing superpower seeks to attain influence.

Soon after his presentation, Jun Wei, also known as Dickson, was, in accordance to US courtroom files, approached by a number of people who explained they labored for Chinese think tanks. They explained they preferred to fork out him to deliver “political reviews and details”. They would later specify just what they wanted: “scuttlebutt” – rumours and insider understanding.

He soon realised they were Chinese intelligence agents but remained in call with them, a sworn assertion says. He was initial questioned to focus on international locations in South East Asia but later on, their fascination turned to the US governing administration.

That was how Dickson Yeo established off on a path to starting to be a Chinese agent – just one who would stop up making use of the experienced networking web page LinkedIn, a phony consulting company and cover as a curious tutorial to entice in American targets.

5 a long time later, on Friday, amid deep tensions amongst the US and China and a determined crackdown from Washington on Beijing’s spies, Yeo pleaded responsible in a US court to becoming an “unlawful agent of a overseas electricity”. The 39-year-outdated faces up to 10 a long time in prison.

Alumni at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew University of General public Plan (LKYSPP), which trains some of Asia’s major civil servants and govt officers, had been remaining stunned by the news that their former peer experienced confessed to being a Chinese agent.

“He was a pretty lively college student in class. I normally considered him as a really clever person,” mentioned a person former postgraduate pupil who did not desire to be named

She said he generally talked about social inequality – and that his loved ones struggled monetarily when he was a child. She reported she discovered it challenging to reconcile the particular person she understood with his guilty plea.

A former member of staff at the institution painted a different image, indicating Yeo appeared to have “an inflated feeling of his have significance”.

Yeo’s PhD supervisor experienced been Huang Jing, a substantial-profile Chinese-American professor who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 for getting an “agent of impact of a foreign nation” that was not determined.

Huang Jing normally denied these allegations. Following leaving Singapore, he first labored in Washington DC, and now Beijing.

According to the court files introduced with Yeo’s guilty plea, the college student satisfied his Chinese handlers on dozens of instances in different areas in China.

In the course of one conference he was questioned to specially attain details about the US Office of Commerce, artificial intelligence and the Sino-US trade war.

Bilahari Kausikan, the former long-lasting secretary at Singapore’s international ministry, reported he experienced “no question that Dickson realized he was working for the Chinese intelligence providers”.

He was not, he explained, “an unwitting beneficial fool”.

Yeo created his important contacts employing LinkedIn, the career and occupations networking website made use of by far more than 700 million folks. The platform was explained only as a “skilled networking internet site” in the court docket documents, but its use was verified to the Washington Post.

Previous govt and military workforce and contractors are not shy about publicly publishing specifics of their function histories on the site in get to get lucrative jobs in the private sector.

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A screenshot of Dickson Yeo’s now-deleted LinkedIn profile

This offers a likely goldmine to foreign intelligence companies. In 2018, US counter-intelligence chief William Evanina warned of “super intense” action by Beijing on the Microsoft-owned system, which is just one of few Western social media sites not blocked in China.

Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer jailed for 20 many years final May for disclosing military services tricks to a Chinese agent, was very first specific on LinkedIn.

In 2017, Germany’s intelligence agency said Chinese agents had applied LinkedIn to target at minimum 10,000 Germans. LinkedIn has not responded to a ask for for remark for this tale but has earlier claimed it will take a assortment of measures to stop nefarious action.

Some of the targets that Yeo uncovered by trawling via LinkedIn have been commissioned to create studies for his “consultancy”, which experienced the identical name as an previously popular firm. These were then despatched to his Chinese contacts.

Just one of the individuals he contacted labored on the US Air Force’s F-35 fighter jet programme and admitted he had dollars difficulties. One more was a US military officer assigned to the Pentagon, who was paid at least $2,000 (£1,500) to produce a report on how the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan would influence China.

In acquiring these contacts, Yeo, who was based in Washington DC for element of 2019, was aided by an invisible ally – the LinkedIn algorithm. Each and every time Yeo seemed at someone’s profile it would propose a new slate of contacts with very similar experience that he could be fascinated in. Yeo described it as “relentless”.

According to the court docket files, his handlers recommended him to check with targets if they “had been dissatisfied with operate” or “have been having monetary difficulties”.

William Nguyen, an American previous pupil at the Lee Kuan Yew university who was arrested at a protest in Vietnam in 2018 and later deported, mentioned in a Fb submit on Saturday that Yeo had attempted to contact him “various occasions” just after he was introduced from jail and his scenario designed headlines all-around the planet.

In 2018, Yeo also posted faux on the internet work ads for his consulting firm. He explained to investigators he obtained more than 400 CVs with 90% of them coming from “US armed service and governing administration staff with protection clearances”. Some ended up handed to his Chinese handlers.

The use of LinkedIn is brazen, but not astonishing, explained Matthew Brazil, the co-creator of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.

“I feel a lot of throughout the world intelligence agencies probably use it to find out resources of details,” he claimed. “Because it really is in everybody’s curiosity who is on LinkedIn to set their total career on there for everybody to see – it is an unusually precious instrument in that regard.”

He said that commissioning guide studies is a way for agents to get “a hook” into a possibly worthwhile resource who may possibly later be convinced to supply categorised facts.

“It is a modern-day version of traditional tradecraft, truly.”

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Media captionLiu Xiaoming: China is not the enemy of the US

US Assistant Lawyer General for Countrywide Stability John Demers reported the situation was an case in point of how China exploits “the openness of American culture” and uses “non-Chinese nationals to goal Americans who by no means depart the United States”.

Singapore, a multicultural society of 5.8 million wherever ethnic Chinese make up the the vast majority of the population, has very long relished near links with the United States, which uses its air and naval bases. But it has also sought and taken care of positive relations with China.

Mr Kausikan reported that he did not believe the spying case – the initially known to include a Singaporean – would damage the country’s track record with the American federal government but he feared that Singaporeans could facial area greater suspicion in American modern society.

On Sunday, Singapore’s Ministry of Household Affairs mentioned investigations experienced not disclosed any direct menace to the country’s stability stemming from the scenario.

LKYSPP’s dean, Danny Quah, wrote in an e-mail to school and college students quoted by the Straits Times newspaper that “no school or other learners at our school are recognised to be included” with the Yeo case.

A spokesperson at the university advised the BBC that Yeo experienced been granted a depart of absence from his PhD in 2019 and his candidature had now been terminated.

Dickson Yeo does not surface to have received as significantly with his contacts as his handlers would have liked. But in November 2019, he travelled to the US with recommendations to change the army officer into a “everlasting conduit of details”, his signed assertion states.

He was arrested right before he could ask.

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