Ex-Zoom employee charged with intercepting Tiananmen Square stream
The US government has accused a former Zoom executive of spying on Chinese dissidents for the Chinese military through the video conferencing app.
Prosecutors from the US Department of Justice on Friday announced charges against a China-based employee, Xinjiang Jin, who they alleged had assisted China in blocking a virtual gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen Square uprising. They said that prosecutors have been investigating Zoom for months.
Zoom said in a blog post that it was cooperating with the investigation and that it had fired Jin and placed other employees suspected of assisting him on leave. Its own investigation had found that Jin had shared the data of ten or fewer users with Chinese authorities, it said.
Jin had been employed as a government liaison after Chinese officials shut down its service in September 2019 without warning. To get the service back up and running, Zoom agreed to install Jin, an in-house contact for police requests, and to transfer all Chinese users’ data in the US to a data centre in China.
As part of the agreement, Zoom was asked to partner with a local technology provider that could analyse the content of meetings hosted in China to identify illegal activity and shut them down immediately.
Zoom said that it did not go ahead with this measure, but did shut down “certain types of political, religious, and sexually explicit meetings”. The Chinese government unblocked Zoom in November last year.
John Demers, the Department’s assistant attorney general for national security, said: “The Chinese Communist Party will use those within its reach to sap the tree of liberty, stifling free speech in China, the United States and elsewhere about the Party’s repression of the Chinese people.
“For companies with operations in China, like that here, this reality may mean executives being coopted to further repressive activity at odds with the values that have allowed that company to flourish here.”
A Zoom spokesman said: “Zoom is dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas and supports the US Government’s commitment to protect American interests from foreign influence.
“As the DOJ notes, Zoom has been fully cooperating with them in this matter. We have also been conducting a thorough internal investigation.”
Zoom said that it was made aware of the investigations in June, when it received a request for information from US prosecutors about the company’s interactions with the Chinese government.
Prosecutors also requested details on how the company stored and accessed user data, along with privacy policies and what it had done after the Zoom stream of the Tiananmen Square anniversary was cut.
The video conferencing giant has seen astronomical growth and achieved a market capitalisation of $116bn (£95bn) thanks to the pandemic, with many people depending on it to conduct work meetings, teach classes and stay in touch with family. Eric Yuan, its chief executive, has seen his net worth climb above $25bn as a result.
Yet its considerable workforce in China has led to concerns over the security and privacy of users if data is transferred to a country which has weaker privacy laws.
Last month Zoom agreed to improve its security after a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation found it had misled users about whether their video calls were protected. As a result, the video calling company will be subjected to routine security reviews, and must examine future software updates for any flaws.