NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States in May last year he was given a fellowship at New York University, use of a Greenwich Village apartment, and a pile of gifts from supporters, including smartphones and an iPad.
But at least two of the gadgets presented to Chen as gifts may not have been quite what they seemed: They included software intended to spy on the blind dissident, according to Jerome Cohen, an NYU professor who has been Chen’s mentor, and another source familiar with the episode.
Like nearly everything surrounding Chen these days, the existence of the spyware is in dispute, and only adds to the public recriminations there have been between NYU and Chen’s supporters over events surrounding the end of his fellowship.
Last weekend, Chen accused NYU of bowing to pressure from China by ending the fellowship, and his supporters have suggested that the university is wary of displeasing the Chinese authorities because of its plans for a campus in Shanghai. The allegations are vigorously denied by NYU, which says the fellowship was only ever planned to last a year.
At issue in the latest escalation in the argument are an iPad and at least one of the smartphones that were given to Chen days after he fled China and arrived in Manhattan. The devices were found by NYU technicians to have been loaded with software that made it possible to track the dissident’s movements and communications, according to Cohen and the second source, who was not authorized to speak on the matter.
The episode suggests that from almost the day that he arrived at the university there was an uneasy atmosphere between Chen, his supporters, and NYU
Among the first visitors in May 2012 to the New York apartment Chen had moved into with his family after a dramatic escape from house arrest in China was Heidi Cai, the wife of activist Bob Fu. She brought an iPad and iPhone as gifts.
The devices were screened by NYU technicians within a few days and were found to have been loaded with hidden spying software, said Cohen, who arranged the fellowship for Chen at NYU Law School, helping defuse a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China after Chen took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
“These people supposedly were out to help him and they give him a kind of Trojan horse that would have enabled them to monitor his communications secretly,” said Cohen.
The iPad was eventually cleaned up and returned to Chen at his request, the second source said.
The spyware issue was not publicized at the time and has only surfaced because of the recent scrutiny of NYU’s arrangement with Chen. Cohen said he was surprised when he heard that Reuters knew about the episode.
Asked about the gadgets, Fu told Reuters that his wife had given two Apple devices to Chen shortly after the dissident had settled in New York. Fu runs a Christian group called ChinaAid that supports underground churches in China and victims of forced abortions.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of spyware,” said Fu, who was in southeast Asia when his wife delivered the devices. He called the allegations “ridiculous” and “like a 007 thing.”
“We knew that the first thing after they arrived, they’d want to call their family members, so we wanted to provide communication devices, iPhone and iPad,” Fu said by telephone from Texas.
Although Cohen and the second source say they were left with no doubt the devices were deliberately installed with spyware, it could not be established whether there might be a more innocent explanation for what technicians believed they had found. The technicians could not be reached for comment.
In examining the iPad and the iPhone, they found software that allowed a third party to secretly connect to an inbuilt global positioning system, essentially turning a device into a tracking device, said the second source. The technicians also found hidden, password-protected software that backed up the contents to a remote server, the source added.
“It’s perfectly consistent with their desire to manipulate and control the situation and know whatever confidential advice he is getting,” Cohen said.
At least three other electronic devices, given to Chen and his wife during their first few days in New York by people other than Fu, also included suspicious software, the second source said.
Fu said he consulted ChinaAid’s computer technician on Thursday and “my staffer is 100 percent sure that the only thing he added on the iPad was a Skype account.”
His technician did only routine things like “the activation of the iPad and iPhone, basic installment, iCloud... there was nothing else there. They have to provide evidence,” said Fu.
“Everything was transparent. There was nothing hidden,” he added.
John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, declined to discuss specifics about the episode. “I do remember hearing about it, I was never really aware of the details, and so I’m not going to comment on it,” he said.
Several of Chen’s supporters allege that NYU staff has controlled and withheld access to the activist. NYU rejects these claims and some figures connected with the university, including Cohen, say that some of Chen’s supporters may be trying to manipulate the self-trained lawyer who speaks little English to serve their own political ends.
Chen could not be reached for comment.
But Mark Corallo, a media consultant who has been working with Chen, said that the gifts from Fu were taken away by NYU before the dissident received them.
“The devices were brand-new when ChinaAid gave them to NYU to give to Chen, so there was no need or reason to perform any check,” he said in an email. “And none of these functions was on any of the devices provided to him by ChinaAid.”
He added that: “At least to Chen’s knowledge, none of these devices was ever found to have any tracking or listening mechanisms.”
Cohen and the second source maintain, however, that Chen was told within days of his arrival in an unfamiliar country that people he believed to be his supporters were very likely spying on him. Chen was “furious” and “very upset” when told, the second source recalled.
Even so, Cohen said Chen still continued to interact with the Fu family. “That’s his right,” Cohen said.
With reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Martin Howell