Federal prosecutors accuse Zoom Exec of working with Chinese Gov to surveil and suppress video calls

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

By Drew Harwell and Ellen Nakashima

Dec. 18, 2020 at 7:19 p.m. EST

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.

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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.

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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.