Foreign spies have extended their dark arts to the world of online networking sites and are targeting politicians, business leaders and academics, the head of Britain’s security service has warned.
Ken McCallum, CEO of MI5said hostile agents are using so-called “covert approaches” on an industrial scale to build relationships to obtain national security information.
Current and former government officials were prime targets because of their experience, and those in tech companies and academia were also targeted for grooming.
“Foreign spies actively work to build relationships with those in government, high-tech companies and academia,” McCallum said.
He added: ‘MI5 has seen over 10,000 disguised approaches on professional networking sites, from foreign spies to people across the UK.
Ghosts with fake accounts are operating on LinkedIn and Facebook on an “industrial scale”, the government has warned.
Concerned about the threat, the UK government’s Center for National Infrastructure Protection has launched a new app called Think Before You Link to prompt potential targets to conduct their own “digital due diligence” before accepting unknown contacts online.
The app will reinforce the support and guidance that government staff, especially those working on sensitive policies, already receive.
“The online threat via social media is growing… Many of these profiles are set up as an elaborate ruse to extract details from officials or members of the public who may have access to information relating to our national security,” said Steve Barclay, Gov. Minister responsible for cybersecurity.
He added: “It is therefore crucial that we do all we can to protect ourselves and our information, ensuring that those we connect with online are who they say they are. This new application will be an important tool in this company. »
The government cited a LinkedIn report that showed 11.6 million fake accounts were blocked at the registration stage in the first six months of 2021.
A LinkedIn spokesperson said, “Our Threat Intelligence team actively searches for signs of state-sponsored activity and removes fake accounts using information we uncover and intelligence from a variety of sources, including government agencies.
Although the government has not named any particular nation involved, it is widely believed that China and Russia are investing significantly in online spying using fake accounts.
China was recently singled out for hiding spies in plain sight, after it was claimed that a lawyer, Christine Lee, circulated widely in parliament, befriending a certain number of deputies.
In January, MPs were warned to avoid contact with Lee, 58, who had been under surveillance by security services for some time.
MI5 said Lee had “facilitated” donations to British political parties and lawmakers “on behalf of foreign nationals”.
Lee is alleged to work for the United Front Works department in Beijing, which operates in parallel with China’s more conventional spy operations.
Such subtle influence was among the subjects of the 2021 book ‘Hidden Hand’ by Australian academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, which details the Chinese Communist Party’s global agenda of influence ‘and subversion’ and the threat many believe he stands for democracy.
PA Media contributed to this report.