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Chinese spies using LinkedIn to recruit Americans, US spy catcher says

Members of Team Dover attend a job fair during the Transition Summit March 16, 2017, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. More than 125 employers and service organizations came to Dover looking to hire transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses. (Mauricio Campino/U.S. Air Force)
August 31, 2018

U.S. officials have caught China using an unconventional strategy to spy on Americans, in the form of online social networks.

William Evanina, a top U.S. counterintelligence official, said that Chinese spies are using LinkedIn to create fake accounts and then target Americans they suspect of holding valuable government or trade secrets, Reuters reported Friday.

Evanina, who is the head of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said that intelligence and law enforcement officials have informed LinkedIn about China’s “super aggressive” recruiting efforts, and have demanded them to be purged from the site.

Using the fake accounts, Chinese spies reportedly contact thousands of Americans on LinkedIn. Evanina did not say how many fake accounts were revealed, or what number of Americans were contacted. It’s unclear how much intelligence the Chinese were able to collect as a result of their efforts.

Although this marks the first time a U.S. official discussed the matter, Chinese recruiting efforts using online social platforms are not a new issue.

Germany and the U.K. have both warned their citizens to be on the lookout for Chinese recruiters attempting to recruit citizens to spying efforts using LinkedIn.

Evanina noted that Twitter, Google and Facebook have all taken measures to purge similar accounts on their platforms.

“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,” he said, though he did not specify whether LinkedIn has taken enough action thus far.

Paul Rockwell, head of trust and safety at LinkedIn, confirmed to Reuters that LinkedIn has discussed the issue of Chinese spies on the platform with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

“We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity,” Rockwell said. “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.”

Earlier in August, Rockwell said in a blog post that LinkedIn had removed dozens of fake accounts that had attempted connections with members of political groups in the U.S.

“Our team recently uncovered and restricted a group of less than 40 fake accounts that appeared to be engaged in efforts to connect with members who are in political organizations,” Rockwell said in the post. It’s not clear whether those accounts were found to be those of Chinese spies.

The foreign ministry of China has already issued a statement to dispute Evanina’s claims, Reuters reported.

“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,” the statement said.