The case is a stunning blow for the $100 billion video-call giant and raises questions about how the California-based company protects users’ data around the world
A security executive with the video-tech giant Zoom worked with the Chinese government to terminate Americans’ accounts and disrupt video calls about the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square, Justice Department prosecutors said Friday. The case is a stunning blow for Zoom, one of the most popular new titans of American tech, which during the pandemic became one of the main ways people work, socialize and share ideas around the world. The California-based company is now worth more than $100 billion.
But the executive’s work with the Chinese government, as alleged by FBI agents in a criminal complaint unsealed Friday in a Brooklyn federal court, highlights the often-hidden threats of censorship on a forum promoted as a platform for free speech. It also raises questions about how Zoom is protecting users’ data from governments that seek to surveil and suppress people inside their borders and abroad. Prosecutors said the China-based executive, Xinjiang Jin, worked as Zoom’s primary liaison with Chinese law enforcement and intelligence services, sharing user information and terminating video calls at the Chinese government’s request. Chinese dissidents say they’re being harassed by a businessman with links to Steve Bannon Jin monitored Zoom’s video system for discussions of political and religious topics deemed unacceptable by China’s ruling Communist Party, the complaint states, and he gave government officials the names, email addresses and other sensitive information of users, even those outside China. Jin worked also to end at least four video meetings in May and June, including video memorial calls with U.S.-based dissidents who’d survived the crackdown by Chinese military forces that killed thousands of students and protesters. The Chinese government works to censor any acknowledgment of the massacre, including on social media outside China. Tiananmen Square anniversary: China tried to erase the crackdown from memory. But its legacy lives on. A Zoom spokesperson said in a statement Friday that the company has cooperated with the case and launched its own internal investigation. Jin, the company said, shared “a limited amount of individual user data with Chinese authorities,” as well as data on no more than 10 users based outside China. Jin was fired for violating company policies, the statement said, and other employees have been placed on administrative leave until the investigation is complete. In an updated statement on Zoom’s website, the company said it “fell short” by terminating the meetings instead of only blocking access to participants in China, to abide by Chinese law. The company said it has reinstated the victims’ accounts and will no longer allow requests from the Chinese government to affect users outside mainland China. “As the DOJ makes clear, every American company, including Zoom and our industry peers, faces challenges when doing business in China,” the company said in its statement. “We will continue to act aggressively to anticipate and combat ever-evolving data security challenges.” Jin could not be reached for comment. Though Jin lives in China and is not in U.S. custody, officials said he could be transferred to the United States to face prosecution if he travels to a country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Human-rights activists this summer said their Zoom accounts had been abruptly terminated shortly before or after they’d hosted video calls commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, a bloody crackdown captured in the iconic photo of a man standing in front of a Chinese tank. Zoom said in a statement then that the company “must comply with laws in the countries where we operate.” While the company said it regretted “that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted,” the statement said it was not in the company’s power “to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech.” Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests who had his paid Zoom account terminated this summer, told The Washington Post on Friday that he had worked with the FBI on the case and saw the charges as “tremendous news.”
“It’s so eye-opening to me how this U.S. company, having this connection, would report directly to” the Chinese Communist Party and “disrupt our meetings regularly on behalf of the CCP,” he said. “This executive was working for the government and police as an agent of persecution, and Zoom was paying this guy for doing that job.” Huawei worked on several surveillance systems promoted to identify ethnicity, documents show Prosecutors charged Jin, also known as Julien Jin, with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and to transfer a means of identification. Jin, 39, had worked at the company since 2016, most recently as a “Security Technical Leader,” the complaint said. Quoting from electronic messages between Jin and other Zoom employees, FBI agents outlined a months-long, high-pressure campaign by China’s “Internet Police” to view users’ video calls and suppress unwanted speech. In one April message, Jin said he had been summoned to a meeting with Chinese government officials who demanded that Zoom develop the capability to terminate any “illegal meeting” within one minute. In others, Jin sent meeting passwords and other sensitive internal data directly to Chinese law enforcement. In the complaint, FBI agents said that Zoom employees in the U.S. had agreed to a Chinese government “rectification” plan that entailed migrating data on roughly 1 million users from the U.S. to China, thereby subjecting it to Chinese law. Zoom also agreed, the complaint states, to provide “special access” to Chinese law enforcement and national security authorities. In one message cited in the complaint, Jin wrote that the authorities had wanted him to share detailed lists of the company’s “daily monitoring” of “Hong Kong demonstrations, illegal religions” and other subjects. To terminate the Tiananmen Square calls, the complaint alleges, Jin’s co-conspirators fabricated evidence that they were intended to discuss child abuse, racism, terrorism, and violence. Jin’s co-conspirators also entered some calls with fake accounts that used pornographic or terrorist-related