LinkedIn ‘a bridge for spies’

China is us­ing fake ac­counts to re­cruit Amer­i­can agents, says US counter-in­tel­li­gence chief

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - WORLD -

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 575 mil­lion users in more than 200 coun­ties and ter­ri­to­ries, in­clud­ing more than 150 mil­lion 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 n 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.

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