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How a Singaporean PhD student became Chinese agent, lured Americans to share information

US authorities allege Yeo was working on directions of Chinese intelligence and targeted US government employees and an Army officer to obtain information.

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New Delhi: When Jun Wei Yeo, a Singaporean PhD student, was invited to make a presentation before Chinese academics in Beijing in 2015, little did he know that he was being roped in to become a Chinese agent.

Later, he not only started actively working for the Chinese but began using professional networking platforms like LinkedIn and a false consulting firm to lure Americans who might be of interest to the Chinese government.

On 24 July, Yeo pleaded guilty in the US for acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese intelligence.

The case has ignited a debate on how nations plant spies and misuse social media to have access to government or commercial secrets of rivals.

In a statement in the case, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) accused the Chinese government of using an array of duplicity to obtain sensitive information from Americans.

Alan E. Kohler Jr., assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Counterintelligence Division, said Yeo was working on the direction of Chinese intelligence operatives and targeted US government employees and an Army officer to obtain information for the government of China.

“Mr. Yeo admits he set up a fake consulting company to further his scheme, looked for susceptible individuals who were vulnerable to recruitment, and tried to avoid detection by U.S. authorities,” the DOJ statement read.

“But this isn’t just about this particular defendant. This case is yet another reminder that China is relentless in its pursuit of U.S. technology and policy information in order to advance its own interests. The FBI and our partners will be just as aggressive in uncovering these hidden efforts and charging individuals who break our laws,” Kohler said in the statement.

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How it began in 2015

According to US court records from last month, investigation in the case revealed that Yeo’s work with People’s Republic of China Intelligence Service (PRCIS) operatives began as early as 2015 when Yeo travelled to Beijing and made a presentation on the political situation in Southeast Asia.

At the time, Yeo was studying to receive a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in public policy from the National University of Singapore.

After his presentation, Yeo was recruited by various individuals who claimed to represent People’s Republic of China (PRC)-based think tanks.

“These individuals offered Yeo money in exchange for political reports and information. Yeo came to understand that at least four of these individuals were intelligence operatives for the PRC government. One of the intelligence operatives later asked Yeo to sign a contract with the PRC People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Yeo refused to sign the contract but continued to work for this and other PRCIS operatives,” the court document said.

The PRCIS operatives then tasked Yeo with providing them information about international political, economic, and diplomatic relations, the investigation revealed.

“They instructed Yeo that they wanted non-public information, information that they referred to as “scuttlebutt.” At first, the taskings were focused on Southeast Asia. Over time, the taskings became focused on the United States,” the document said.

“During one meeting an operative tasked Yeo with obtaining non-public information about the U.S. Department of Commerce, artificial intelligence, and the “trade war” between China and the United States,” it added.

Investigation also revealed that Yeo met PRCIS operatives at various locations across China.

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The evidence

Court records show Yeo worked under the direction and control of PRCIS operatives over the past four to five years, trying to obtain valuable non-public information from the US.

“Using the internet and various social media sites, Yeo worked to spot and assess Americans with access to valuable non-public information, including U.S. military and government employees with high-level security clearances,” the document said.

“Yeo recruited these individuals and paid them to write reports. Yeo told the individuals that the reports were intended for clients in Asia, without revealing that the reports were being sent to the PRC government,” it added.

According to the court document, to complete his tasks, Yeo used the internet and social media to find and recruit potential US citizens who could provide him information.

In or around 2018, investigation revealed, that a PRCIS intelligence operative instructed Yeo to create a fake consulting company and post job listings for the company on an online job-search website and Yeo did as asked.

“For his fake consulting company, Yeo used the same name as a prominent U.S. consulting firm that conducts public and government relations,” the document said.

Yeo later informed US law enforcement that he received over 400 resumes in response to the fake job posting. Of these, 90 per cent were from US military and government personnel with security clearances.

“Yeo would pass resumes to one of the PRCIS operatives if he found them to be interesting and useful,” the document said.

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How he used LinkedIn

Yeo used professional networking website LinkedIn to find individuals with resumes and job descriptions that suggested they were likely to have access to valuable non-public information, investigators claimed in a statement to the court.

“After Yeo contacted potential targets online, the professional networking website began to suggest additional potential contacts. According to Yeo, the website’s algorithm was relentless. Yeo checked the professional networking website almost every day to review the new batch of potential contacts suggested to him by the site’s algorithm. Later, Yeo told U.S. law enforcement that it felt almost like an addiction,” the document said.

After identifying potential targets online, Yeo allegedly worked to recruit them to provide information and write reports.

“Yeo received guidance from his PRCIS contacts for how to recruit potential targets, including asking whether the targets were dissatisfied with work, were having financial troubles, had children to support, and whether they had a good rapport with Yeo,” the document said.

By following this strategy, Yeo allegedly recruited multiple US citizens to provide him with information.

How this worked

For instance, according to court records, Yeo spotted and contacted ‘US Person 1’ in or around 2015 using LinkedIn.

The person was a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B military aircraft programme. He confided in Yeo that he was having financial troubles. Yeo successfully recruited him to write a report for him in exchange for money. The person also provided Yeo information about the geopolitical implications of the Japanese purchasing the F-35 aircraft from the US.

“Yeo then drafted a report on that information and sent it to one or more of his PRCIS contacts,” the court document said.

In order to be safe, whenever Yeo was outside the US, this PRCIS operative communicated with Yeo through the encrypted Chinese messaging application, WeChat. “Yeo was instructed to use multiple phones and to change his WeChat account every time he contacted the PRCIS operatives,” the document said.

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