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The LinkedIn espionage connection: How China recruits spies from abroad

China using professional social media platform LinkedIn for recruiting spies (IANS)

In a recent report, The Times from UK has detailed how Chinese Intelligence agents have zeroed in on LinkedIn as a platform of choice for stealing state secrets. This mainly done through recruitment of civil servants, defence contractors and military officials.

The daily in its report quotes Phillip Ingram, a former military intelligence as saying that the Chinese intelligence had attempted to recruit him via LinkedIn.

As a former colonel whose expertise included specialist cyber-intelligence work and knowledge of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, Ingram was used to such approaches.

“I got a connection request from someone on LinkedIn, I get lots of them,” Ingram said. “His name was Robin; he was a Chinese businessman with links across the security industry in his profile. It fitted the sort of people I would connect with, so I accepted.”

But it did not take long for the former intelligence official to see through that he was being targeted by the Chinese government. Usually, Chinese spies identify targets and obtain classified information by creating fake business profiles on professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn. To make the profiles look genuine, China has equipped these phantom profiles with Artificial Intelligence generated faces as the display picture: a digital update to the cold-war era honey traps, says an AP report. They entice the employees of private and government sector that have access to sensitive information and commercial patented technology through lucrative business opportunities and sums of money.

Employees who have high security clearance are particularly vulnerable to this mass scale operation as networking websites like LinkedIn publicly advertise their current and former employment history. The fake recruitment profiles are generic and usually requests the target for information such as a report on the country’s counter-terrorism network and security challenges. Further, the target is asked to use an encrypted email service that cannot be accessed by anyone in China except intelligence agencies. Then the victim is coerced into meeting the officials in China to present his report. If satisfied, he is effectively recruited as an agent and sent back to gather bits and pieces of other sensitive information. If the target resists recruitment, Chinese intelligence agencies engineer activities to gather compromising material for blackmail.

The BBC reports that BfV, the German intelligence agency that revealed that the Chinese targeted around 10,000 Germans with an intent to recruit them as informants in 2017. It described the attempt to infiltrate the parliament, ministries and government agencies as a broad-based effort to subvert top-level German politics.

Separately, NBC News has reported that Kevin Mallory, a former CIA officer admitted to providing his Chinese handlers with highly classified information about American operatives travelling to China. The handlers had noticed through Mallory’s LinkedIn profile that he didn’t have a steady employment since 2012 and recruited him through a fake profile of a think tank representative looking for a foreign policy expert.

The espionage activities are not limited to stealing state secrets alone. Commercially sensitive information is on the Chinese spy radar as well. For instance, the American Justice Department charged Yanjun Xu, a Chinese intelligence agent with economic espionage for recruiting a General Electric Aviation engineer through LinkedIn. Xu was trying to obtain technology used in jet engine that ensures broken blades do not damage other parts of plane that indigenously built Chinese planes lack, says an InkStone report.

In October 2020, a researcher at Sekisui Chemicals in Japan had leaked commercially sensitive information regarding a key smartphone component to Chaozhou Three-Circle, a company that manufactures communication equipment parts based in China’s Guangdong Province. Uncovering the details of the case remains a challenge, since Japanese Authorities have no jurisdiction over the company, says a Nikkei Asia report.                          

 Even in India, Delhi Police has arrested journalist Rajeev Sharma under the Official Secrets Act for passing sensitive information to Chinese Intelligence agencies. Local media reports that Rajeev was contacted by a Chinese agent named Michael through LinkedIn who invited him for an interview in China, all expenses paid. He was then recruited to provide information on Indian Military Deployment in various places including Doklam, pattern of India-Myanmar military cooperation and India’s border issues. The money, around $500 per article, was transferred to him through shell companies to avoid source detection.

However, in response to China’s beneath the radar activities, many countries have taken active steps to pick up signs of state sponsored activity and taking action to protect the interest of citizens and uphold national security. MI5, UK’s domestic counter-intelligence agency has started – Think before you Link – campaign to educate the general public about the damage caused to the individual’s career and interest of the nation by engaging with these profiles. Potential targets are being warned not to make details regarding their security clearance and roles publicly available. Even an innocuous connection can be misinterpreted as a kind of endorsement and provides legitimacy to a fake profile. The New York Times reports that William Evanina, director of US National Counter Intelligence and Security Centre is in talks with LinkedIn officials to curb China’s ‘super aggressive’ efforts and remove fake accounts that indulge in espionage activities.

LinkedIn, in turn, has put in place automated techniques coupled with human reviews to identify and remove accounts that violate its terms of service. The company has also provided an option to report accounts that members feel are not representing themselves honestly or indulging in harassment and spreading inaccurate content. Data suggests that these automated defences have took down 98.4 % of all fake accounts while the rest have been stopped by a manual review. Around 33.3 million of these fake accounts have been blocked at the registration stage. Laws and legal rules should also be updated, since the first steps in the current recruitment process are not illegal.