Chinese spy convicted of helping iCloud backup his iPhone

A Chinese spy doing industrial espionage against GE Aviation and the aviation division of Honeywell has been arrested with the help of accessing an iCloud backup of his iPhone. The data obtained included an unprecedented version of the security model used by Chinese security services when recruiting spies.

Xu Yanjun, an officer with China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has been arrested and brought to trial in the United States after investigators lured him out of the country to attend a meeting in Belgium, where he is extradited to America…

Bloomberg It tells the story dramatically, but the executive summary is that China targeted academics and engineers working on aviation projects. They were invited to China on all-expenses-paid flights, ostensibly presenting conference papers – but in fact providing commercially sensitive information on airframe and engine development.

Arthur Gao, an aeronautical engineer who was nearing retirement age, received an unexpected email from a long-lost acquaintance in China. Years ago, Zhao made a series of trips from his home in Phoenix to speak at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or NUAA, one of China’s most prestigious research institutions. The original invitation came from the head of a laboratory there studying helicopter design. However, Zhao has increasingly heard from another person, a man who works at the university in an obscure administrative capacity. Little Zaha, as the man called himself, was the one who made sure Zhao would never have to pay for his airline ticket when he came for talks.

The relationship ended awkwardly, though, when Zha offered money for Gau to return to China with information about specific aviation projects from his employer, industry and defense giant Honeywell International Inc. Zhao ignored the request and the calls stopped.

Now, in 2014, Little Zha was reaching out again. The two started the interview [with another trip to China the end result].

Late in the evening, Xu hands Zhao $3,000 in cash. Zhao later testified that he tried to get her back, but Xu was adamant. “And then, you know, back and forth, but I took it in the end.”

The following year, Zhao returned to China to give another lecture – this time a private one in a hotel room to several engineers and officials, including Xu. In preparation, Zhao sent an email via PowerPoint slides containing technical information, including algorithms and other sensitive design data for Honeywell’s aircraft auxiliary power units. He later told the judge: “Because of the payment, I felt obligated.” […]

Zhao was planning his next visit, in the fall of 2018, FBI agents showed up at his Arizona home to execute a search warrant. There will be no other trip. The agents explained that Xu was no longer in Nanjing. It wasn’t even in China. He was in Ohio, in a county jail awaiting trial.

Xu Yanjun’s arrest proved to be a much bigger deal than the FBI had expected.

His arrest marked the first time that a Department of Homeland Security officer had been lured out of China and extradited to the United States. And it was more than a symbolic victory, as it yielded an extraordinary collection of digital correspondence, official Chinese intelligence documents, and even a personal journal.

When Xu was arrested, he had an iPhone that kept its contents securely backed up to the cloud, a period that allowed FBI investigators to recover all data from Apple […]

Over the course of two and a half weeks from late October to November, federal prosecutors in a Cincinnati courtroom relied on the wealth of digital material the 41-year-old had hoarded to create a picture of himself — his training, his methods, his ambitions, his vices, his own doubts and grievances. Translated from the original Mandarin, this is an unprecedentedly intimate portrait of how China’s economic espionage machine works, and what life is like for its cogs.

The data is accessible because even though your iCloud backups are encrypted, they don’t use end-to-end encryption. This means that Apple owns the key, and can turn over the data to law enforcement upon receipt of a court order.

The documents obtained included one that the FBI had not seen before.

The document is similar in some respects to Standard Model 86A questionnaire that US intelligence personnel are required to complete. But the paperwork of an autocratic one-party state has the added richness, that it functions not only as a professional and personal resume but also as a political one. Bradley Hull, the FBI special agent who led the investigation into Shaw, was asked at one point in his testimony if he had seen such a shape before. He replied, “No.” “Nobody owns it.”

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