In December, during the presidential transition, the DOJ unveiled an indictment and issued an arrest warrant for Xinjiang Jin, also known as “Juliean Jin,” a China-based Zoom employee, accusing him of manipulating Zoom’s internal systems to interfere in U.S. calls that included content criticizing the Chinese Communist Party.
The complaint alleges Jin worked directly with Chinese government intelligence agents to surveil and then disrupt Zoom calls commemorating the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. He also is accused of providing personal data of Communist Party critics to the authorities in Beijing.
This is not the Chinese government censoring its own citizens — this is the Chinese government allegedly using a Zoom employee to harass Americans and put them in direct danger of retaliation. A human rights group sent me the video of one event that was crashed. Their discussion of human rights in China was repeatedly interrupted with pro-CCP propaganda videos and hard-core pornography.
“No company with significant business interests in China is immune from the coercive power of the Chinese Communist Party,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, when announcing the charges. He remains on the job.
In its response to the DOJ complaint, Zoom said Chinese authorities had made it clear the company must follow Chinese law or be shut down in China. The company also said it has put in place various measures meant to ensure that the Chinese government is only able to impose its laws on Chinese citizens and that Americans’ data is safer.
Nevertheless, the White House has to be especially careful about cyber security threats, and its reliance on Zoom is a problem, the House’s Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks (Ind.) wrote in a letter to Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. Banks asked the White House to disclose exactly which meetings it was using for Zoom, whether any classified information was included in those meetings, and he asked, “Why is Zoom being used, rather than alternatives, given the history of Zoom meetings being infiltrated by agents of the Chinese Communist Party?”
Two senior Biden administration officials told me that they inherited the Zoom system from the Trump administration, meaning they did not initiate the contract. They also emphasized the White House uses Zoom for Government, a more secure version, and not for classified meetings. All Zoom for Government communications “are processed exclusively in continental U.S. data centers that are managed solely by U.S.-based, U.S. people,” a Zoom spokesperson told me. The officials said the Biden administration would do a full review of all its communications policies and procedures but they declined to share any details of that review.
A former senior Trump administration official acknowledged that the Trump administration had used Zoom, but pointed out that the Trump administration practiced lots of unsafe cyber security habits so it should not be held up as the standard going forward. Some Trump administration officials were more careful than others.
“The [National Security Council] was terrified of Zoom,” the former official said. “The NSC went out of its way not to use Zoom for any meetings because they were told it was not safe to use Zoom for any official capacity.”
Klon Kitchen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me that although Zoom is an American company, as long as it uses engineers inside China, there will always be a risk in using the platform. That risk should not be overstated, he said, but the White House has the option to use a company that isn’t constrained by Chinese law or as vulnerable to Chinese government tampering.
“There’s good reason to believe Zoom has made significant strides in their cybersecurity and that for normal Americans’ use, it’s probably fine,” he said. “But if you are the White House, you have a higher cybersecurity bar that you need to get over and there’s just no reason to assume that risk.”
Perhaps recognizing that national security concerns are impacting its image in Washington, Zoom just hired to its board former Trump administration national security adviser H.R. McMaster. McMaster’s latest book calls the Chinese Communist Party the greatest threat in a generation. Last month, he gave a book talk to Banks’s Republican Study Committee. The event was held over Zoom.