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By Bruce Sussman
Mon | Oct 12, 2020 | 8:35 AM PDT

Do you have anyone at your organization with a security clearance? Do you personally have a clearance, or did you in the past?

If so, you should be aware of a cyber-enabled scheme that China is running to recruit U.S. citizens. 

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed detailed tactics in a recent court case. The case was specifically targeting employees at U.S. federal government agencies. But the DOJ says this is an example of how China is trying to exploit the collaborative U.S. society.

"This case serves as a reminder that China is using professional networking social media sites to target U.S. citizens with government security clearances, and to try to gain non-public and classified information. The threat is real, and we will prosecute foreign agents who exploit those platforms," said Michael R. Sherwin, Acting United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.

China recruiting U.S. citizens: the operator

Dickson Yeo is from Singapore, but he started working for the Chinese government in 2015. At first, he helped China secretly pump knowledge from individuals in Asian countries. 


Then he was ready to target people in the United States. And at some point, he jumped onto the radar of the DOJ. 

Yeo admitted to his scheme on behalf of Chinese intelligence and was just sentenced to 14 months in federal prison.

China recruiting U.S. citizens: Step 1

The first thing Yeo did was spend time on social networking sites; it sure sounds like LinkedIn, although that is one of the things the DOJ did not specify. Regardless, this is the start of his cyber-enabled recruitment:

"Yeo used the professional networking website to find individuals with resumes and job descriptions suggesting that they would have access to valuable information. After he identified individuals worth targeting, Yeo followed guidance he received from Chinese intelligence operatives regarding how to recruit potential targets, including identifying their vulnerabilities, such as dissatisfaction with work or financial difficulties."

China recruiting U.S. citizens: Step 2

Next, Yeo posed as a consultant from a U.S. consulting firm.

"Yeo created a fake consulting company that used the same name as a prominent U.S. consulting firm that conducts public and government relations, and Yeo posted job advertisements under that company name."

China recruiting U.S. citizens: Step 3

Now, posing as a consultant from a trusted brand and with his target list developed, he was ready to secretly recruit U.S. government and military employees to unknowingly give information to Chinese intelligence.

"...he solicited them for non-public information and paid them to write reports. Yeo told these American targets that the reports were for clients in Asia, without revealing that they were in fact destined for the Chinese government."

This is not to say U.S. citizens gave up secrets, but rather, they may have detailed certain aspects of their research or knowledge on a topic which can help China develop a similar body of knowledge. 

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers says this about the case involving the People's Republic of China (PRC):

"At the direction of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, Yeo recruited Americans to provide information that he would pass back to his PRC handlers. Yeo concealed his PRC affiliation from his recruits and, contrary to law, from the United States Government.

This criminal conduct is part of the PRC’s efforts to exploit the openness of American society by using agents who may appear innocuous, but who act upon taskings from a foreign government to obtain access and information."

The DOJ paints this method of recruiting as a kind of standard operating procedure by the Chinese government—one that targets both current and former security clearance holders.

It is viewed as such a threat that the FBI and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) recently released a
mini-movie about these type of efforts.

You can watch The Nevernight Connection movie right here:

Alan E. Kohler, assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, puts it like this:

"As this movie highlights, foreign intelligence services are posing as headhunters and consultants on professional networking sites to aggressively target Americans. We believe it's critically important to educate the public in order to neutralize this threat from foreign intelligence services."

What are signs China might be targeting you to share information?

The FBI says you should watch for the following warning signs that you are being targeted by or sucked into a Chinese recruitment scheme:

  • It's too good to be true: "Be suspicious of jobs offering remote or flexible work and a disproportionately high salary for the role advertised."
  • Flattery: "Your contact may overly praise or focus on your skills and experience or refer to you as a 'high-end' candidate (especially if your government affiliation is known)."
  • Scarcity: "There may be an emphasis on so-called limited, one-off, or exclusive opportunities."
  • Lack of depth/detail: "There may be a lack of any visible or verifiable company information available online and/or the role itself lacks tangible details."
  • Urgency: "Your contact might be overly responsive to messages and may attempt to rush you off the networking platform onto another communication method."
  • Imbalance: "There may be a disproportionate focus on the company you are being recruited for rather than the company validating you as a possible candidate."
Lastly, federal agencies are running their own security awareness campaign around this threat: The threat is real. Think before you link.
That is something all of us should do.