WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The best spy scavenger in the US said Chinese spy agencies use fake LinkedIn accounts to recruit Americans with access to government and business secrets, and the company should shut them down.
William Evanina, the US defense chief, told Reuters in an interview that intelligence and law enforcement LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corporation, reported on China's "super-aggressive" efforts on the site.
He said the Chinese campaign included contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at the same time, but he declined to say how many fake accounts US intelligence had discovered, how many Americans might have been contacted, and how successful China was had in the recruitment.
German and British authorities have warned their citizens that Beijing uses LinkedIn to recruit them as spies. However, this is the first time that a US official has publicly discussed the challenge in the United States, pointing out that this is a bigger problem than previously known.
Evanina said LinkedIn should be careful to copy the responses from Twitter, Google and Facebook, which have all deleted fake accounts allegedly linked to Iranian and Russian intelligence services.
"I saw recently that Twitter is canceling millions of fake accounts, I do not know, and our request might be that LinkedIn could go on and be there," said Evanina, a member of the US Counter Intelligence and Information Society safety center.
It is extremely unusual for a senior US intelligence official to name an American-owned company and publicly call for action. LinkedIn says it has 575 million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including more than 1
However, Evanina did not say if he was frustrated with LinkedIn's response or if he believes that he has done enough.
LinkedIn LinkedIn Trust and Security Director Paul Rockwell confirmed that the company had talked with US law enforcement agencies about Chinese spying activities. Earlier this month, LinkedIn said it had "fewer than 40" fake accounts whose users were trying to contact LinkedIn members with unidentified political organizations. Rockwell did not say if those were Chinese accounts.
"We are doing everything possible to identify and stop this activity," Rockwell told Reuters. "We have never waited for requests to identify bad actors and identify bad accounts, we use information we uncover and information from various sources, including government agencies."
Rockwell declined to provide fake accounts with Chinese intelligence agencies. He said that the company is taking "action very quickly to restrict accounts and mitigate and stop any material damage that could happen," but did not provide any details.
LinkedIn "is a victim here," said Evanina. "I think the warning story … is," You'll be like Facebook. Want to be where Facebook was last spring with the statement of Congress? "He said, referring to the survey of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg about the use of Facebook on Facebook to meddle in the US election in 2016.
China's Foreign Ministry denied Evanina's allegations.
" We do not know what evidence the responsible US officials you cite must lead to this conclusion. What they say is utter nonsense and has ulterior motives, "the ministry said in a statement.
But Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Beijing's exploitation of LinkedIn" shows the length of the Chinese intelligentsia and the 21st century challenges in a world where everyone has a chance Online footprint.
Evanina said that he spoke in part because of the case of Kevin Mallory, a retired CIA officer sentenced in June to commit espionage for China.
Mallory fought financially when he was contacted in February 2017 via a LinkedIn message from a Chinese citizen who claimed to be a headhunter, according to court records and court records.
The person named Richard Yang talked on the phone between Mallory and a man who claims to be working in a think tank in Shanghai.
During two more trips to Shanghai Mallory agreed to sell US defense secrets – through a special mobile device that was handed to him – even though he was his Chinese Considered contacts as intelligence agents. He is due to be sentenced in September and possibly imprisoned.
While Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations use LinkedIn and other platforms to identify recruitment targets, US intelligence officials said China is the most productive and the biggest threat.
U.S. Officials said the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has "co-optees" – people who are not employed by intelligence agencies but work with them – set up false accounts to target potential recruits.
They said that the goals include experts in areas such as supercomputing, nuclear, nanotechnology, semiconductors, stealth technology, health care, hybrid crops, seeds and green energy.
Chinese intelligence uses bribery or fake business proposals in its recruitment efforts. For example, academics and scholars are offered to pay for scientific or professional work, and in some cases they are later called upon or pressured to pass on US government or business secrets.
Some of those who set up false accounts were linked to IP addresses associated with Chinese intelligence agencies, while others were created by false companies, including some who claim to be in the senior recruitment industry senior US intelligence official who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter.
The official said that "some correlation" between Americans hacked over LinkedIn and data hacked by the Office of Personal Management, a US government agency, in 2014 and 2015 attacks.
The hackers stole sensitive private information, such as addresses, financial and medical records, employment history, and fingerprints from more than 22 million Americans who had undergone background checks for security clearance.
The United States identified China as the prime suspect in mass hacking, a claim that China's Foreign Ministry dismissed as "absurd logic" at the time.
UNSPOKED SPYING EXPERIENCE
China's total espionage accounts for around 70 percent of the US private sector and not the government, said Joshua Skule, head of the FBI intelligence department, which oversees, inter alia, the flow of information for counterintelligence of the FBI.
"They complete economic espionage at a rate unprecedented in our history," he said.
Evanina said five current and former US officials – including Mallory – have been charged or convicted of spying for China over the past two and a half years.
He pointed out that more cases of alleged espionage of US citizens were investigated for China, but refused to provide details.
U.S. Intelligence agencies alert current and former officials to the threat and tell them what security measures they can take to protect themselves.
Some current and former officials are publishing important details about their government work history online – even sometimes calling intelligence agencies that the government does not publicly acknowledge.
LinkedIn "is a very good site," said Evanina. "But it's a great place for foreign opponents to target not only individuals in the government, shapers, former CIA people, but academics, scientists, engineers, anything they want, it's the ultimate playground for the collection . "
Reporting by Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by John Walcott; Editing by Kieran Murray and Ross Colvin