The US’s 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, said that intelligence and law enforcement officials have told LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, 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 America 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.
“I recently saw that Twitter is cancelling, I don’t know, millions of fake accounts and our request would be maybe LinkedIn could go ahead and be part of that,” said Evanina, who heads the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Centre.
It is highly unusual for a senior US intelligence official to single out an American-owned company by name and publicly recommend it take action.
LinkedIn said it has 575million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including more than 150million US members.
Evanina did not, however, say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn’s response or whether he believes it had 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.
LinkedIn said this month that it had taken down “less than 40” fake accounts whose users were attempting to contact LinkedIn members associated with unidentified political organisations. Rockwell did not say whether those were Chinese accounts.
He declined to provide numbers of fake accounts associated with Chinese intelligence agencies.
China’s foreign ministry disputed Evanina’s allegations. “We do not know what evidence the relevant US officials you cite have to reach this conclusion. What they say is complete nonsense and has ulterior motives,” the ministry said.
Evanina said he was speaking out in * Mallory, a retired CIA officer convicted in June of conspiring to commit espionage for China.
A fluent Mandarin speaker, Mallory had been struggling financially when he was contacted in February last year 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.
While Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations also use LinkedIn and other platforms to identify recruitment targets, the US intelligence officials said China was the most prolific and posed the biggest threat.
US officials said China’s ministry of state security had “co-optees” who set up fake accounts to approach potential recruits. They said the targets included experts in fields such as supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, health care, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy.
Chinese intelligence uses bribery or phony business propositions in its recruitment efforts. Academics and scientists, for example, are offered payment for scholarly or professional papers and, in some cases, are later asked or pressured to pass on US government or commercial secrets.
Some of those who set up fake accounts have been linked to IP addresses associated with Chinese intelligence agencies, while others have been set up by bogus companies, including some that purport to be in the executive recruiting business, said a senior US intelligence official who requested anonymity.
The official said “some correlation” has been found between Americans targeted through LinkedIn and data hacked from the Office of Personnel Management, a US government agency, in attacks in 2014 and 2015. Reuters and African news agency (ANA)