How a Chinese Agent Weaponised LinkedIn to Steal Sensitive Info

‘Dickson’ Yeo had set up a fake consultancy company on LinkedIn, which he used to bait US govt and military workers.

Updated27 Jul 2020, 03:42 PM IST
Tech and Auto
5 min read

A Singaporean national, who had set up a fake consultancy company to solicit “valuable non-public information” from the United States’ government and military workers has pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal agent of Chinese intelligence.

The US Justice Department, in a statement on Friday 24 July, said Jun Wei You was recruited by the Chinese government around 2015 while he was a PhD candidate in Singapore and researching on Chinese foreign policy.

According to a Reuters report, the United States is cracking down on Chinese spying within its shores, “with the FBI having interviewed dozens of visa holders about their possible ties to Chinese intelligence.”

The most interesting aspect of the spying activities, however, is Yeo’s use of LinkedIn and leveraging its algorithm to find US government and military workers and offer them jobs to write reports for his fictitious consultancy.

While the US Court’s documents states that Yeo used “a professional networking website” without naming LinkedIn, BBC in its report explicitly names the popular platform.

Microsoft-owned LinkedIn has over 700 million users globally and India, with 62 million users, forms the platform’s second largest user base globally.

China’s weaponisation of the platform has serious implications and a warning at a time when the country has witnessed conflict with the People’s Liberation Army of China along the LAC.

The BBC writes that, in 2018, “US counter-intelligence chief William Evanina had warned of 'super aggressive' action by Beijing on the Microsoft-owned platform.”

As trade, economic and diplomatic tensions between the US and China continues to escalate, The Quint dives into the modern day espionage incident.

WHO IS JUN WEI YEO?

Yeo, also known as ‘Dickson’ Yeo, was enrolled as a PhD candidate at Singapore prestigious Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP).

The globally renowned institution trains some of Asia's top civil servants and government officials. His peers “were left shocked by the news that their former peer had confessed to being a Chinese agent,” the BBC reported.

According to the court documents related to Yeo's guilty plea, in 2015, while still pursuing his doctoral degree, he traveled to Beijing, China, and gave a presentation on the political situation in Southeast Asia.

An image of Jun Wei Yeo which he had posted on his social media. 
An image of Jun Wei Yeo which he had posted on his social media. 
(image: Jun Wei Yeo/Google)

HOW DID HE BECOME A CHINESE AGENT?

Yeo “worked under the direction and control of People’s Republic of China (PRC) Chinese intelligence service (PRCIS), his signed guilty plea states.

Following his presentation in Beijing, Yeo was recruited by various individuals who claimed to represent China-based think tanks. He was offered money in exchange for political reports and information. In 2019, he had applied for and was granted a leave of absence from his institute.

Over time, Yeo came to understand that at least four of these individuals were intelligence operatives for the Chinese government. One of the intelligence operatives later even asked Yeo to sign a contract with the PRC People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

He refused to sign the contract but continued to work for this and other PRCIS operatives.

WHAT DID CHINA WANT HIM TO DO?

The PRCIS operatives had tasked Yeo with providing them information about international political, economic, and diplomatic relations. Essentially, the Chinese handlers wanted to recruit Yeo to obtain non-public information, also referred to as “scuttlebutt.”

While at first, the tasks were focused on southeast Asia, over time, they became focused on the United States.

During one of Yeo’s Visits to Beijing, to meet with operatives, he was tasked with obtaining non-public information about the US Department of Commerce, artificial intelligence, and the “trade war” between China and the United States, court documents reveal.

He visited China several times, meeting some of the operatives 20 to 25 times. On each occasion, he was whisked away by authorities from the customs line to a separate office in order to conceal his identity.

On several occasions, Yeo received the exact same tasking from all of his PRCIS contacts, leading Yeo to surmise that there is one central authority in Beijing that disseminates research questions to various components of the PRCIS.

HOW DID HE EXPLOIT LINKEDIN FOR HIS MISSION?

While the court filings related to his guilty plea don’t specify the networking platform Yeo used, BBC reports “he made his crucial contacts using LinkedIn, the job and careers networking site used by more than 700 million people.”

Court’s documents, without naming LinkedIn, state, Yeo also used “a professional networking website” that is focused on career and employment information.”

Yeo used LinkedIn to find experienced individuals who have worked in the military or the government and have security clearance and were likely to have access to valuable non-public information.

He then recruited these individuals and paid them to write reports intended for clients in Asia, without revealing that the reports were meant for the Chinese government.

“Former government and military employees and contractors are not shy about publicly posting details of their work histories on the website in order to obtain lucrative jobs in the private sector,” the BBC wrote.

LINKEDIN AS A TOOL FOR SPIES

LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, is one of few Western social media sites not blocked in China. The networking site’s penetration within ‘The Great Firewall of China’, that Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter have found difficult to get past, has raised suspicions within US intelligence circles of its possible use by foreign powers.

In fact, Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer jailed for 20 years last May for disclosing military secrets to a Chinese agent, was first targeted on LinkedIn.

According to Yeo, the website’s algorithm was “relentless” and a useful ally in his mission to identify and recruit people for his fake company. Everytime he looked at a profile on the site, the algorithm would suggest dozens of similarly qualified and experienced individuals with security clearances.

He told a district court in Washington DC that he had received over 400 resumes for a fake job posting. Around 90 percent of the resumes he received were from US military and government personnel with security clearances. Yeo would then pass on the resumes to one of the PRCIS operatives.

According to his guilty plea, Yeo had received guidance from his PRCIS contacts on how to recruit potential targets, including asking “whether the targets were dissatisfied with work, were having financial troubles, had children to support.”

HOW IS SINGAPORE REACTING TO THE US-CHINA ISSUE?

Singapore, a multicultural society of 5.8 million where ethnic Chinese make up the majority of the population, has maintained a balancing act between the two powers.

While it has long enjoyed close links with the United States, which uses its air and naval bases, the city-state has also sought and maintained positive relations with China, the BBC writes.

"In light of the information released by the US Department of Justice, Yeo's PhD candidature has been terminated with immediate effect and he is no longer a student at the school," said the LKYSPP in a statement

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Sunday also said that Singapore is extending consular assistance to Yeo, Singapore’s The Straits Times reported.

(With inputs from BBC, Reuters, The Straits Times)

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Published: 27 Jul 2020, 02:36 PM IST
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