How Beijing lured Chinese students to fuel its cyber-espionage actions?

In a recent survey, the FinancialTimes reveals how the Chinese government managed to attract university students in the country’s digital espionage. They were recruited by a shell company owned by the cybercriminal group APT40. Beijing-backed hackers.

Chinese government recruits students as spies

In this report, we can read that Chinese university students were lured into a secret technology company that obscured the true nature of their work: spy on western targets and translate documents hacked by hackers financially supported by the Chinese government. To understand the workings of this infernal machine, the FinancialTimes identified and contacted 140 potential translators, mostly recent graduates who studied English at public universities in Hainan, Sichuan and Xi’an.

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Their common point? The students responded to job offers at Hainan Xiandun, a company located in the southern tropical island of Hainan. The application process included translation testing of sensitive documents obtained from US government agencies and instructions to search for individuals at Johns Hopkins University, a key intelligence target. According to a 2021 US federal indictment, Hainan Xiandun allegedly served as a cover for Chinese hacker group APT40.

Hidden job offers

US authorities have accused APT40 of infiltrating government agencies, companies and universities in the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East, on the orders of the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) . Chinese students targeted by Hainan Xiandun were unwittingly trained to become spies. The company’s job offers were posted on university websites, without any explanation of the real nature of the work. Unfortunately for these young graduates, this could have lifelong consequences.

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Indeed, people identified as having cooperated with the MSS in the context of their mission for Hainan Xiandun may encounter difficulties in living and working in Western countries, a key motivation for many students studying foreign languages. Zhang, an English graduate who applied to Hainan Xiandun, told the FinancialTimes that a recruiter had asked him to find information about the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The instruction document instructed candidates to upload “software to get behind the Great Firewall”. According to the student (who decided to stop the hiring process), “it was very clear that it was not a translation company”.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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