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US convicted a Chinese spy with help from an iCloud backup

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Xu Yanjun, an officer in China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), was caught with the help of an iCloud backup of his iPhone.

A federal jury convicted Yanjun on November 5, 2021, of industrial espionage against GE Aviation and Honeywell. The goal was to steal secrets relating to advanced aerospace engines so China could learn to manufacture their own.

Unfortunately, investigators couldn't get anything directly off Yanjun's iPhone, as an unknown party remotely wiped it a day after his arrest. However, the investigation details shared by Bloomberg reveals that Yanjun's iCloud data was a key factor in his arrest and conviction.

Backups in iCloud are encrypted in transit and while sitting on servers. But, as it has done many times before, Apple can hand over the data after a valid subpoena from law enforcement — this time, the FBI.

The iCloud data included a document never seen before by the FBI or other US agencies. The report compares it to Standard Form 86, a questionnaire American intelligence employees are required to complete.

Through Ministry of State Security officers like Yanjun, China reportedly targeted academics and engineers working on secret aerospace projects. Invited to the country under the pretense of giving academic talks, spies gradually gained access to information.

An employee of GE Aviation, David Zheng, was quickly caught and used in counterintelligence to draw Yanjun out of China. GE worked closely with the FBI, using technical papers that didn't contain real secrets, but were carefully edited to be suggestive.

Zheng then handed these to Yanjun to fool him and Chinese academics into thinking they were helpful information. Finally, after months of work, investigators were able to lure Yanjun to Belgium, where he was arrested and extradited to the US.

The whole story is long and interesting, as the US gained unprecedented insight into China's economic industrial espionage complex as a result of the investigation and arrest.