In a novel case, federal prosecutors on Friday indicted an executive at Zoom, the video conferencing company, accusing him of conspiracy to disrupt and censor video meetings to commemorate one of the most politically sensitive events in China.
Prosecutors said China-based executive branch Xinjiang Jin invented grounds to suspend accounts of people in New York holding monuments on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and coordinating with Chinese officials to identify potentially problematic meetings.
He is accused of working with others to log into video meetings under aliases with profile pictures relating to terrorism or child pornography. Afterward, Mr. Jin would report the sessions for violating the terms of service, prosecutors said.
At least four sessions to commemorate the massacre that year, attended mainly by US users, were canceled due to Jin’s actions, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Jin, also known as Julien Jin, acted as the liaison between Zoom and Chinese government agencies, according to the prosecutor. He is only identified in the criminal complaint as an employee of a US telecommunications company. Zoom confirmed on Friday that it was the company.
Mr. Jin was not arrested and is at large in China, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
The case was an unusually sharp warning from law enforcement officers to American tech companies operating in China, which are often caught between the principles of free speech and the demands of the Chinese censorship machine.
“Americans should understand that the Chinese government will not hesitate to take advantage of companies operating in China to advance its international agenda, including the suppression of free speech,” said Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, in a statement.
A Zoom spokesperson said Friday that Mr. Jin violated his guidelines by attempting to bypass internal controls. Mr. Jin was fired and other Zoom employees were put on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
In a detailed statement, the company said it has since provided end-to-end encryption for all users and limited access to Zoom’s global network for China-based employees.
The company is headquartered in San Jose, California and employs hundreds of people in China.
The charges against a China-based employee who works for an American company are an aggressive reprimand against China, which requires technology companies operating there to monitor user activity in order to censor politically sensitive issues.
Seth DuCharme, the acting US attorney in Brooklyn whose office brought the case, said the allegations had exposed the security flaws of American tech companies engaging in the “Faustian deal” with operations in China.
Economy & Economy
Apr. 18, 2020 at 12:25 am ET
The U.S. law firm in Brooklyn has been particularly active in filing cases that have angered the Chinese government, including a criminal case against Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, and charges against eight people accused of plotting on China’s behalf for political purposes Dissidents in the US to harass US return home.
Mr. Jin was charged with conspiracy to interstate harassment and illegal conspiracy to transfer identification means. A lawyer for Mr. Jin could not be identified.
The case is also a black eye for Zoom, raising new questions about business security at a time when software is heavily used for work, school, healthcare, and more.
Mr. Jin asked employees for user data from American servers that he did not have direct access to, the prosecutor said. It was not clear how much access Chinese government officials were given to the account information of Zoom users in the United States.
The Zoom spokesman said the company’s internal investigation revealed that Mr. Jin shared individual user data with Chinese authorities. He shared the data for “fewer than 10 individual users” who were based outside of China.
The criminal complaint showed a relentless effort by Mr. Jin and others to stop video meetings commemorating the anniversary of the June 4th massacre.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, Mr. Jin warned a US official that Chinese officials are stalking Zoom users and stressed the need to uphold the Chinese government’s secret demands for censorship, according to criminal charges.
“They are requesting that we not disclose it,” wrote Mr. Jin. “Otherwise it will seriously damage our country’s reputation.”
Mr. Jin told the colleague that if Tiananmen Square was mistreated, China could block the company’s servers, according to prosecutors.
In another case, Chinese government officials informed Mr. Jin of a planned memorial on Tiananmen Square in America and gave him the session number of the video call, which Mr. Jin was then able to end, prosecutors said. It was not clear how the officers got the session number because the prosecutor said it had not been made public.
After customer demand for Zoom skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese government imposed additional controls on the operation of Zoom, even if users outside of China were involved.
In April, Mr. Jin told another Zoom employee that the Chinese government had ordered that Zoom develop the ability to end a meeting within a minute of a violation of Chinese law being discovered.
In June, Zoom was scrutinized by lawmakers after it blocked accounts held by Chinese human rights leaders who used the platform to organize commemorations for the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Operation in 1989, when army troops saw hundreds of student demonstrators, Workers and ordinary citizens. These accounts were later restored.
The Zoom memorial services also had consequences for people who were supposed to speak to them.
A dissident in the United States, who had not been identified by name, told the FBI that the Chinese authorities had pressured several people in China not to speak at a Zoom event he organized.
On the morning of the event, according to the criminal complaint, Chinese police detained one of the potential speakers for several days and went to another to prevent the person from logging into an electronics.
Katie Benner contributed to the coverage.