After social media giants Facebook and Twitter have led efforts to purge what they deem to be Russian and Iranian foreign intelligence accounts, a bombshell new report says China is using LinkedIn to attempt mass recruiting of Americans with access to government and commercial secrets.
In an interview with Reuters, a top US counterintelligence chief has claimed China is being "super aggressive" in its online recruitment efforts on the Microsoft-owned job networking and locator tool.
That a high ranking intelligence member would take the step of calling out a particular company by name, urging it to curtail Chinese influence, is rare even in the current environment hyper-anxiety and fears over Russian election hacking.
The counterintelligence official, William Evanina described to Reuters that US agencies have confirmed that the Chinese are casting a broad dragnet on LinkedIn while seeking to lure Americans into personal interviews:
He said the Chinese campaign includes contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at a time, but he declined to say how many fake accounts U.S. intelligence had discovered, how many Americans may have been contacted and how much success China has had in the recruitment drive
Evanina, who heads the U.S. National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, has further called on LinkedIn to follow the lead of other online companies: “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,” according to Reuters.
LinkedIn has something approaching 600 million users on its site around the globe, including about 150 million members in the US.
Meanwhile, LinkedIn has responded to the allegations of US intelligence by noting it is increasingly aware of such threats and says it's cooperating with authorities:
LinkedIn’s head of trust and safety, Paul Rockwell, confirmed the company had been talking to U.S. 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 told Reuters further that, “We’ve never waited for requests to act and actively identify bad actors and remove bad accounts using information we uncover and intelligence from a variety of sources including government agencies.”
But if the allegations of mass infiltration efforts to ensnare Americans with security clearances and access to sensitive information are true, it doesn't appear that LinkedIn has so much as begun to identify or put a dent in such activities.
China for its part has vehemently denied the charges leveled by the US counterintelligence chief, saying through its foreign ministry: “We do not know what evidence the relevant U.S. officials you cite have to reach this conclusion. What they say is complete nonsense and has ulterior motives,” according to a statement.
Meanwhile it has been confirmed that Chinese intelligence did use LinkedIn to successfully recruit a retired CIA officer who is reported to have been facing financial hardship at the moment he was contacted by what he thought was a Shanghai think tank looking for fluent Mandarin speaker.
Evanina cited Kevin Mallory's case specifically, as Mallory was convicted in June for espionage. In a relationship that started with someone claiming to be a headhunter on LinkedIn, Mallory eventually made two trips to China where he agreed to knowingly hand over US defense secrets to Chinese intelligence officers.
Reuters describes in connection with Mallory's case: "U.S. 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."
And reports further that "the targets include experts in fields such as supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, health care, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy."
Often bribery or prospects of major business deals or employment are used, or in the case of American academics with access to sensitive corporate or government studies, promises of huge grants or career advancement are made under false pretenses.
Though the allegations of US intelligence can claim Kevin Mallory as a prime example of how the Chinese operation works, the only evidence thus far of the extent of the operations is as follows:
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 U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the matter.
The Reuters report notes that up to 70 percent of China's espionage efforts are aimed at the American private sector, according to the head of the FBI's intelligence division.
“They are conducting economic espionage at a rate that is unparalleled in our history,” the FBI's Joshua Skule said.
However, for now convictions and exposures of particular instances of successful penetration are few and far between. But it will be interesting if the next online "purge" targets China and online users linked with Chinese business and entities.