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LinkedIn reportedly used by some nations to recruit spies

LinkedIn isn’t only an excellent way to find new business opportunities and network with others who work in the same field. It’s also a great way for foreign powers to recruit spies, according to a New York Times report published on Tuesday, August 28.

The practice has been going on for a number of years, the report claims, with Western counterintelligence officials from several nations warning some individuals to be wary of foreign agents using the social networking site for recruitment purposes. Officials speaking to the Times described Chinese spies as “the most active” on LinkedIn.

William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a government agency that warns companies of possible infiltration attempts, told the Times that Chinese operatives were using LinkedIn “on a massive scale” and contacting “thousands of people at a time.” He added that it was more efficient for the operatives to quickly engage with multiple targets through the site and invite them to China under the guise of a business trip than sending spies to the U.S. for a single recruitment effort for information that might include corporate trade secrets, intellectual property, and valuable research.

Bogus connections

The Times’ report listed a number of examples where persons of interest were being contacted by individuals from China. Upon closer inspection, however, the personal and business details of some of those making contact failed to match with their original claims, raising suspicions over who exactly was making the approach.

It also cited the case of former CIA employee Kevin Patrick Mallory, who was handed a 20-year jail term earlier this year after being found guilty of conspiring to pass national defense information to a Chinese intelligence officer. The FBI said the Chinese operative first made contact with Mallory via LinkedIn, posing as a think-tank representative before developing the relationship.

As the Times points out in its report, LinkedIn is an appealing tool for Chinese operatives partly because it’s the only mainstream U.S. social media platform that’s allowed to operate in China after the company agreed to censor some of its content. Also, many of its 645 million global users are actively on the lookout for new business opportunities, so anyone can contact them with an offer to set up an initial meeting, whether bogus or not.

With social media services well known to be a tool for all kinds of nefarious activities instigated by foreign powers, news that LinkedIn is apparently being used as a recruitment tool in the murky world of espionage will surprise few. But at the same time, LinkedIn knows it will have to work on improving its detection techniques if it’s to escape increased scrutiny that could ultimately lead to measures impacting its service.

LinkedIn said it employs a team to remove fake accounts when it finds them, adding that fraudulent activity or the creation of a bogus account with the aim of misleading its members “is a violation of our terms of service.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry has so far declined to comment.

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Trevor Mogg
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