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, US National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said.
Evanina, the US’ top spy catcher, told reporters in an interview that intelligence and law enforcement officials have told LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corp, about China’s “super aggressive” efforts on the Web site.
The Chinese campaign includes contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at a time, Evanina said, declining to say how many fake accounts US intelligence had discovered, how many US citizens might 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 the US and indicated that it is a bigger problem than previously known.
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, Evanina said.
“I saw that Twitter is canceling, I don’t know, millions of fake accounts, and our request would be that maybe LinkedIn could go ahead and be part of that,” he said.
It is unusual for a senior US intelligence official to single out a US-owned firm by name and publicly recommend that it take action.
LinkedIn has said it has 575 million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including more than 150 million US accounts.
However, Evanina did not say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn’s response or whether he believes it has done enough.
LinkedIn head of trust and safety Paul Rockwell confirmed that the company had been talking with US law enforcement agencies about Chinese espionage efforts.
Earlier this month, LinkedIn said that 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.
“We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity,” Rockwell said.
Rockwell declined to provide numbers of fake accounts associated with Chinese intelligence agencies.
He said the company takes “very prompt action to restrict accounts and mitigate and stop any essential damage that can happen,” but gave no details.
LinkedIn “is a victim here,” Evanina said.
“I think the cautionary tale ... is: ‘You are going to be like Facebook. Do you want to be where Facebook was this past spring with congressional testimony, right?’” he said, referring to lawmakers questioning Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Russia’s use of the platform to meddle in the 2016 US presidential elections.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs 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 in a statement.
However, US Senator Mark Warner said that Beijing’s exploitation of LinkedIn “demonstrates the length to which Chinese intelligence will go.”
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