Chinese agencies have been accused of using fake LinkedIn accounts to send out thousands of private messages in an attempt to recruit Americans as spies, said William Evanina, the chief of the U.S. National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center.
Evanina told Reuters in an interview published Friday that targeted individuals included high-level officials in government and commercial positions who may have industrial knowledge and access to confidential information.
Targeted industries included supercomputing, hybrid grains, nuclear technology and green energy.
The private LinkedIn messages often offer all-expense-paid trips to China, bribery or bogus business propositions. Once an individual accepts, Chinese officials often have enough information for blackmail.
Microsoft, the owner of LinkedIn, has been informed of the attack, which has involved contacting many thousands of the social media site’s members.
There was no immediate information available regarding how successful the recruitment drive has been, but Germany and Britain have previously reported similar issues, according to BBC.
Other popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have reportedly been removing millions of fake accounts tied to other foreign intelligence agencies, and Evanina is requesting that LinkedIn do the same.
Paul Rockwell, head of trust and safety for LinkedIn, confirmed that they had been speaking with U.S. agencies about these recruitment efforts.
“We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity,” Rockwell told Reuters. “We’ve never waited for requests to act and actively identify … and remove bad accounts.”
The Chinese foreign ministry denied these allegations in a statement to Reuters: “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.”
In one case, retired CIA officer Kevin Mallory was contacted through LinkedIn in early 2017 by someone posing as a Chinese headhunter looking for individuals to participate in a think tank. After two trips to Shanghai, he agreed to sell U.S. defense secrets.
He was convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in June and could face life in prison when he is sentenced in September.
Four other government officials have been convicted of spying in recent years, though most Chinese efforts are focused on the private sector.
Some correlation has been found between the names of targeted Americans and data hacked during 2014 and 2015 from the Office of Personnel Management. Medical records, fingerprints and addresses of over 22 million Americans were stolen from the agency, which provides human resource services to the federal government.
“LinkedIn is a very good site, but it makes for a great venue for foreign adversaries to target not only individuals in the government … but academics, scientists, engineers, anything,” Evanina said.
“It’s the ultimate playground for collection.”
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