The Chinese spy who hunted on LinkedIn

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Dickson Yeo/Facebook

Jun Wei Yeo, an formidable and freshly enrolled Singaporean PhD scholar, was little doubt delighted when he was invited to provide a presentation to Chinese lecturers in Beijing in 2015.

His doctorate analysis was about Chinese international coverage and he was about to find firsthand how the rising superpower seeks to achieve affect.

After his presentation, Jun Wei, often known as Dickson, was, in response to US courtroom paperwork, approached by a number of individuals who stated they labored for Chinese suppose tanks. They stated they needed to pay him to offer “political reports and information”. They would later specify precisely what they needed: “scuttlebutt” – rumours and insider data.

He quickly realised they had been Chinese intelligence brokers however remained involved with them, a sworn assertion says. He was first requested to deal with nations in South East Asia however later, their curiosity turned to the US authorities.

That was how Dickson Yeo set off on a path to turning into a Chinese agent – one who would find yourself utilizing the skilled networking web site LinkedIn, a faux consulting firm and canopy as a curious educational to lure in American targets.

Five years later, on Friday, amid deep tensions between the US and China and a decided crackdown from Washington on Beijing’s spies, Yeo pleaded guilty in a US court to being an “illegal agent of a foreign power”. The 39-year-old faces as much as 10 years in jail.

Alumni at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), which trains a few of Asia’s prime civil servants and authorities officers, had been left shocked by the information that their former peer had confessed to being a Chinese agent.

“He was a very active student in class. I always viewed him as a very intelligent person,” stated one former postgraduate scholar who didn’t want to be named

She stated he usually talked about social inequality – and that his household struggled financially when he was a toddler. She stated she discovered it troublesome to reconcile the particular person she knew together with his responsible plea.

A former member of employees on the establishment painted a distinct image, saying Yeo appeared to have “an inflated sense of his own importance”.

Yeo’s PhD supervisor had been Huang Jing, a high-profile Chinese-American professor who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 for being an “agent of influence of a foreign country” that was not recognized.

Huang Jing at all times denied these allegations. After leaving Singapore, he first labored in Washington DC, and now Beijing.

According to the court documents released with Yeo’s guilty plea, the scholar met his Chinese handlers on dozens of events in several places in China.

During one assembly he was requested to particularly receive details about the US Department of Commerce, synthetic intelligence and the Sino-US commerce battle.

Bilahari Kausikan, the previous everlasting secretary at Singapore’s international ministry, stated he had “no doubt that Dickson knew he was working for the Chinese intelligence services”.

He was not, he stated, “an unwitting useful fool”.

Yeo made his essential contacts utilizing LinkedIn, the job and careers networking web site utilized by greater than 700 million individuals. The platform was described solely as a “professional networking website” within the courtroom paperwork, however its use was confirmed to the Washington Post.

Former authorities and navy workers and contractors usually are not shy about publicly posting particulars of their work histories on the web site to be able to receive profitable jobs within the personal sector.

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

This presents a possible goldmine to international intelligence companies. In 2018, US counter-intelligence chief William Evanina warned of “super aggressive” action by Beijing on the Microsoft-owned platform, which is one in every of few Western social media websites not blocked in China.

Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer jailed for 20 years final May for disclosing navy secrets and techniques to a Chinese agent, was first focused on LinkedIn.

In 2017, Germany’s intelligence company stated Chinese brokers had used LinkedIn to focus on at the least 10,000 Germans. LinkedIn has not responded to a request for remark for this story however has beforehand stated it takes a variety of measures to cease nefarious exercise.

Some of the targets that Yeo discovered by trawling via LinkedIn had been commissioned to jot down reviews for his “consultancy”, which had the identical title as an already distinguished agency. These had been then despatched to his Chinese contacts.

One of the people he contacted labored on the US Air Force’s F-35 fighter jet programme and admitted he had cash issues. Another was a US military officer assigned to the Pentagon, who was paid at the least $2,000 (£1,500) to jot down a report on how the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan would influence China.

In discovering such contacts, Yeo, who was based mostly in Washington DC for a part of 2019, was aided by an invisible ally – the LinkedIn algorithm. Each time Yeo checked out somebody’s profile it could counsel a brand new slate of contacts with related expertise that he is perhaps keen on. Yeo described it as “relentless”.

According to the courtroom paperwork, his handlers suggested him to ask targets in the event that they “were dissatisfied with work” or “were having financial troubles”.

William Nguyen, an American former scholar on the Lee Kuan Yew faculty who was arrested at a protest in Vietnam in 2018 and later deported, stated in a Facebook put up on Saturday that Yeo had tried to contact him “multiple times” after he was launched from jail and his case made headlines around the globe.

In 2018, Yeo additionally posted faux on-line job advertisements for his consulting firm. He informed investigators he obtained greater than 400 CVs with 90% of them coming from “US military and government personnel with security clearances”. Some had been handed to his Chinese handlers.

The use of LinkedIn is brazen, however not shocking, stated Matthew Brazil, the co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.

“I think lots of worldwide intelligence agencies probably use it to seek out sources of information,” he stated. “Because it’s in everybody’s interest who is on LinkedIn to put their whole career on there for everybody to see – it’s an unusually valuable tool in that regard.”

He stated that commissioning guide reviews is a manner for brokers to get “a hook” right into a probably invaluable supply who may later be satisfied to provide categorized info.

“It’s a modern version of classic tradecraft, really.”

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Media captionLiu Xiaoming: China just isn’t the enemy of the US

US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers stated the case was an instance of how China exploits “the openness of American society” and makes use of “non-Chinese nationals to target Americans who never leave the United States”.

Singapore, a multicultural society of 5.eight million the place ethnic Chinese make up the vast majority of the inhabitants, has lengthy loved shut hyperlinks with the United States, which makes use of its air and naval bases. But it has additionally sought and maintained constructive relations with China.

Mr Kausikan stated that he didn’t consider the spying case – the primary recognized to contain a Singaporean – would harm the nation’s fame with the American authorities however he feared that Singaporeans may face higher suspicion in American society.

On Sunday, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said investigations had not revealed any direct threat to the country’s security stemming from the case.

LKYSPP’s dean, Danny Quah, wrote in an email to faculty and students quoted by the Straits Times newspaper that “no faculty or other students at our school are known to be involved” with the Yeo case.

A spokesperson on the faculty informed the BBC that Yeo had been granted a go away of absence from his PhD in 2019 and his candidature had now been terminated.

Dickson Yeo doesn’t seem to have gotten as far together with his contacts as his handlers would have favored. But in November 2019, he travelled to the US with directions to show the military officer right into a “permanent conduit of information”, his signed assertion says.

He was arrested earlier than he may ask.

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