China Using LinkedIn to Recruit Spies

A smartphone showing the signup screen for LinkedIn.

LinkedIn China services caused a storm when the platform blocked certain prominent journalists on the Chinese site. (Image: inlytics via Unsplash)

The Chinese government is using LinkedIn profiles to hire spies, says James Olson, who has spent 30 years working for the CIA and is presently a professor at Texas A&M University. In addition, Chinese agents are also targeting foreign students as potential spies.

LinkedIn espionage

Social media platforms like LinkedIn provide detailed professional histories and other personal information of individuals. This allows Chinese agents to identify people they should target and convert into spies. Such targets are often people who have access to critical American technologies and innovative research. Olson says that China’s information gathering is like a “tidal wave” and that most professionals are completely oblivious that they are being targeted for espionage.

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A huge ocean wave.
China’s information gathering is like a ‘tidal wave’ and most professionals are completely oblivious that they are being targeted. (Image: Schäferle via Pixabay)

According to Olson, such professionals come from a culture where it is okay to collaborate with others and share research. As such, these professionals tend to overlook the fact that there are people who are looking to exploit them because of their background.

In September, it was revealed that Zhenhua Data Information Technology, a Chinese military contractor, had compiled profiles of millions of influential people worldwide, including Americans who had a background in the military and nuclear sectors. Many of these profiles contained information taken from LinkedIn and other social media profiles. Olson points out that the Chinese agents seduce potential targets by inviting them to conferences and dangling the possibility of lucrative employment or business associations.

“They announce in their resumes they worked in the government or they worked in a high-tech company with access to technology the Chinese would be interested in, and they see all that… They elicit as much information as they can, they size them up to be susceptible to that kind of approach and they begin to press the point… Before long they’re sharing a lot more information. And the urge is to ingratiate themselves with someone who might be a future employer or partner in any way. It’s classic,” Olson said, as reported by The Australian Financial Review.

In Australia, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) has initiated a public awareness campaign aimed at educating people about the dangers of foreign agents who are using social media networks to groom potential spies. ASIO has collaborated with Five Eyes intelligence partners in Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S. for this initiative.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess pointed out that several social media platforms were unwilling to cooperate with the intelligence agency in blocking espionage threats. He warns that if a stranger were to approach you online, you should be wary of them. Even the nicest, most generous stranger might turn out to be an agent seeking to gain your trust and exploit you for their nefarious purposes. 

A Macbook pro sitting on a desk in an office.
ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess warns that if a stranger were to approach you online, you should be wary of them. (Image: Sopan Shewale via Unsplash)

Chinese espionage

Most Chinese foreign agents work under the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Intelligence Bureau, or State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). The Chinese government forces citizens and companies to comply with intelligence operations and divulge trade secrets or other sensitive information. Failure to cooperate will only invite punishment. In addition, Beijing has set up around 500 talent programs aimed at snatching professionals and experts from the tech sector in the West.

Chinese espionage has a strong negative impact on U.S. interests. According to some estimates, America loses almost US$360 billion annually due to China’s IP theft. The Director of the FBI has even admitted that his agency opens a new counterintelligence case involving China every 10 hours.

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