CHINESE spy agencies are using fake accounts on LinkedIn in a “super aggressive” effort to recruit Americans with access to government and commercial secrets, a top US intelligence official said.
Urging the company to shut the attempts down, US counter-intelligence chief William Evanina said intelligence and law enforcement have told the Microsoft-owned company about the activities of the Chinese agencies.
Without going into detail, Evanina said the Chinese agencies go on a mass recruitment drive, contacting thousands of LinkedIn users at a time. However, he did not say how many the US has discovered or how many the Chinese have reached and their success rates.
Similar to responses by Twitter, Google, and Facebook which deleted accounts with alleged links to Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies, Evanina said LinkedIn should purge the fake accounts.
“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,” Evanina, who heads the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, told Reuters recently.
Evanina’s remarks are considered unusual as US officials rarely point out an American company in public and ask it to take action.
LinkedIn boasts 575 million users in more than 200 counties, including more than 150 million members from the US.
Evanina did not, however, say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn’s response or whether he believes it has done enough.
The official added that LinkedIn is a victim of the Chinese agencies.
“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?’” he said.
Evanina was referring to lawmakers’ questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Russia’s use of Facebook to meddle in the 2016 US elections.
Paul Rockwell, LinkedIn’s head of trust and safety, said the company was in talks with US law enforcement agencies about the alleged Chinese espionage activities.
The company in early August said it took down dozens of fake accounts whose users tried to contact LinkedIn members with links to political organisations. Rockwell did not reveal whether the accounts were from China.
“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.”
Rockwell, who declined to provide numbers of fake accounts associated with Chinese intelligence agencies, said the company takes “very prompt action to restrict accounts and mitigate and stop any essential damage that can happen.”
In a statement, China’s foreign ministry disputed Evanina’s allegations.
“We do not know what evidence the relevant US officials you cite have to reach this conclusion,” the ministry said. “What they say is complete nonsense and has ulterior motives.”