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Over 10,000 UK nationals have been targeted online in the past five years by hostile states such as China, as foreign spies increasingly manipulate professional networking sites to recruit new agents and steal secrets .
In a campaign launched this week, UK security agencies will warn 450,000 officials and partners in industry and academia that UK adversaries are creating fake online accounts to trick people with access to classified information. Disguising themselves as recruiters, foreign spies lure their targets to face-to-face meetings where they can be bribed or blackmailed in order to gain intelligence.
The campaign, titled ‘think before you go online,’ is coordinated by the Center for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) – the branch of UK intelligence agency MI5 that advises government and businesses on protective security. While officials do not give details on which countries or social media platforms are of greatest concern, China has long used the networking site LinkedIn to trap spy targets.
Last year, a US court heard that Dickson Yeo, an academic at George Washington University, had used LinkedIn to target US military and government personnel on behalf of Chinese intelligence services. He has established online links with State Department officials, former military commanders, Pentagon employees and think tank experts in an attempt to relay information to Beijing.
In 2019, former CIA officer Kevin Mallory was sentenced by the United States to 20 years in prison for delivering military secrets to the Chinese Secret Service after he was first approached on LinkedIn.
The British government has been reluctant to denounce Chinese espionage activities for fear of provoking retaliation. Britain’s historic defense and security review, released last month, made it clear that the UK will continue to seek a balance in its relationship with Beijing. The review highlighted that China is the “greatest state threat” to UK economic security, but also stressed that Britain will continue to seek “deeper trade ties and more Chinese investment.” .
Describing the scale of the threat of online espionage, the UK’s CPNI said its assessment that 10,000 UK nationals had been approached by foreign spies in the past five years was a “conservative estimate”. He also admitted that “a considerable number of these people” had initially engaged in espionage attempts.
Targets are typically government employees with high-level security clearance, as well as retired government officials and individuals in the private sector who have access to classified or commercially sensitive technologies, such as defense equipment. The campaign advises people to be wary of new contacts making job offers that sound too good to be true, and urges them to report suspicious approaches to their employer.
Ken McCallum, Managing Director of MI5, said malicious profiles on professional networking sites were being used on “an industrial scale”. “This campaign, which harnesses the knowledge gleaned from our intelligence, our behavioral science experts and the cooperation of Five Eyes partners, will strengthen the UK’s collective defenses against this activity,” said McCallum.
Dominic Fortescue, chief government security officer, added that the increase in remote working during the coronavirus pandemic had made officials and others more vulnerable to approaches from online spies.
The campaign was tested in the UK three years ago, but is only launched publicly now. All of the UK’s Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners – the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – have adopted “think before you go” versions of using CPNI documents.
Announcing the start of the Canberra campaign in November, Mike Burgess, Australia’s chief intelligence officer, said: and potentially recruit you as a source.
Commenting on the coordinated approach, Alan Kohler, deputy director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, said foreign spies “now face the efforts of five united nations working in partnership to combat their hostile actions.”
Paul Rockwell, trust and security manager at LinkedIn, said his staff were actively looking for signs of “state-sponsored activity” and removing fake accounts using information from a variety of sources, including government agencies.
Between January and June of last year, LinkedIn deleted 33.7 million fake accounts during signup.