China using 'fake' LinkedIn accounts to recruit Americans: Chief US spy catcher

Reuters
United States Published: Aug 31, 2018, 04:14 PM(IST)

File photo Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

German and British authorities have previously warned their citizens that Beijing is using LinkedIn to try to recruit them as spies.

The United States' top spy catcher said Chinese espionage agencies are using fake LinkedIn accounts to try to recruit Americans with access to government and commercial secrets, and the company should shut them down.

William Evanina, the US counter-intelligence chief, told Reuters in an interview that intelligence and law enforcement officials have told LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corp., about China's "super aggressive" efforts on the site.

He said the Chinese campaign includes contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at a time, but he declined to say how many fake accounts US intelligence had discovered, how many Americans may have been contacted and how much success China has had in the recruitment drive.

German and British authorities have previously warned their citizens that Beijing is using LinkedIn to try to recruit them as spies. But this is the first time a US official has publicly discussed the challenge in the United States and indicated it is a bigger problem than previously known.

Evanina said LinkedIn should look at copying the response of Twitter, Google and Facebook, which have all purged fake accounts allegedly linked to Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies.

It is highly unusual for a senior US intelligence official to single out an American-owned company by name and publicly recommend it to take action. LinkedIn boasts 562 million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including 149 million US members.

Evanina did not, however, say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn's response or whether he believes it has done enough.

LinkedIn's head of trust and safety, Paul Rockwell, confirmed the company had been talking to US law enforcement agencies about Chinese espionage efforts.

Earlier this month, LinkedIn said it had taken down "less than 40" fake accounts whose users were attempting to contact LinkedIn members associated with unidentified political organizations. Rockwell did not say whether those were Chinese accounts.

Rockwell declined to provide numbers of fake accounts associated with Chinese intelligence agencies. He said the company takes "very prompt action to restrict accounts and mitigate and stop any essential damage that can happen" but gave no details.

Evanina said he was speaking out in part because of the case of Kevin Mallory, a retired CIA officer convicted in June of conspiring to commit espionage for China.

A fluent Mandarin speaker, Mallory was struggling financially when he was contacted via a LinkedIn message in February 2017 by a Chinese national posing as a headhunter, according to court records and trial evidence.

The individual, using the name Richard Yang, arranged a telephone call between Mallory and a man claiming to work at a Shanghai think tank.

During two subsequent trips to Shanghai, Mallory agreed to sell US defence secrets - sent over a special cellular device he was given - even though he assessed his Chinese contacts to be intelligence officers, according to the US government's case against him. He is due to be sentenced in September and could face life in prison.

While Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations also use LinkedIn and other platforms to identify recruitment targets, the US intelligence officials said China is the most prolific and poses the biggest threat.

US officials said China's Ministry of State Security has "co-optees" - individuals who are not employed by intelligence agencies but work with them - set up fake accounts to approach potential recruits.

They said the targets include experts in fields such as supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, healthcare, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy.

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