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China Using LinkedIn To Recruit Spies – Including Former Government Officials

Courtesy of ZeroHedge View original post here.

Former government officials have been receiving strange messages over LinkedIn from Chinese operatives offering “well paid” opportunities to help out Beijing and gain “great access to the Chinese system” for research. 

According to the New York Timesit’s all part of a sophisticated network to recruit foreign spies

A former Danish Foreign Ministry official got LinkedIn messages from someone appearing to be a woman at a Chinese headhunting firm wanting to meet in Beijing. Three middle-aged men showed up instead and said they could help the former official gain “great access to the Chinese system” for research.

A former Obama White House official and career diplomat was befriended on LinkedIn by a person who claimed to be a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, with a profile page showing connections to White House aides and ambassadors. No such fellow exists. -New York Times

According to Western counterintelligence officials – perhaps even the same ones who conducted espionage on the 2016 Trump campaign – foreign agents are exploiting social media - using LinkedIn as “prime hunting ground.” Warnings have been issued by Britain, German, France and the United States abut foreign agents reaching out to users on the site.

One former government official reported that someone called Robinson Zhang contacted him over LinkedIn. Zhang identified as a “PR Manager” for a company called R&C Capital, while his profile shows the Hong Kong skyline. R&C is listed as “an international consulting company based in Hong Kong,” specializing in “global investment, geopolitical issues, public policy, etc.” 

“I’m quite impressed by your CV and think you may be right for some opportunities, which are all well paid,” Zhang wrote the former official – which seemed odd to him. 

The words struck him as strange, the former official said, so he asked Mr. Zhang for a website. Mr. Zhang directed him to a home page with an image of the Eiffel Tower but little information about R&C Capital. It appeared to be “something he made up on the fly,” the former official said. (The New York Times viewed the site, which was deleted sometime after The Times emailed the company for an interview request.)

Mr. Zhang repeatedly indicated that his company could pay for a trip to China. The former official asked multiple times for more detail on the company but did not get any substantive responses. -New York Times

The LinkedIn account of a man calling himself Robinson Zhang, who said he worked for R&C Capital, “an international consulting company based in Hong Kong” that specialized in “global investment, geopolitical issues, public policy, etc.”

“We’ve seen China’s intelligence services doing this on a mass scale,” said National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) director William R. Evanina. NCSC tracks foreign spying and alerts companies to possible infiltration, according to the Times. “Instead of dispatching spies to the U.S. to recruit a single target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in China and send out friend requests to thousands of targets using fake profiles.” 

The use of social media by Chinese government operatives for what American officials and executives call nefarious purposes has drawn heightened scrutiny in recent weeks. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube said they deleted accounts that had spread disinformation about the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Twitter alone said it removed nearly 1,000 accounts.

It was the first time Facebook and Twitter had taken down accounts linked to disinformation from China. Many governments have employed similar playbooks to sow disinformation since Russia used the tactic to great effect in 2015 and 2016.

LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, is both another vehicle for potential disinformation and, more important, an ideal one for espionage recruitment, American officials say. -New York Times

Former government officials, meanwhile, are making it really easy for China to identify who to go after - as many ex-feds will list their security clearances on LinkedIn in order to boost their job prospects. 

Interestingly, LinkedIn is the only major American social media platform not blocked by Beijing due to the fact that they have agreed to censor posts. 

“The Chinese want to build these options with political, academic and business elites,” said former Danish Foreign Ministry official Jonas Parello-Plesner, who reported an apparent Chinese recruiting attempt which began over LinkedIn. “A lot of this thrives in the gray zone or the spectrum between influence-seeking and interference or classical espionage.” Parello-Plesner noted that people who have just parted ways with the government are ‘especially vulnerable’ because they are actively searching for jobs

According to LinkedIn spokeswoman Nicole Leverich, the company has been proactive in identifying and removing fake and dubious accounts – acting on information from a variety of sources, including government agencies according to the Times

“We enforce our policies, which are very clear: The creation of a fake account or fraudulent activity with an intent to mislead or lie to our members is a violation of our terms of service,” said Leverich. 

In multiple recent cases, LinkedIn proved to be an effective recruiting tool. A former employee of the C.I.A. and Defense Intelligence Agency, Kevin Patrick Mallory, was sentenced in May to 20 years in prison for spying for China. The relationship began after he replied in February 2017 to a LinkedIn message from a Chinese intelligence agent posing as a think tank representative,the F.B.I. said.

The Justice Department last October charged a Chinese intelligence agent, Yanjun Xu, with economic espionage after he recruited a GE Aviation engineer in a relationship that began on LinkedIn, according to the indictment.

Mr. Evanina, the counterintelligence chief, told Reuters last yearthat Chinese agents were contacting thousands of people at a time on LinkedIn. “It’s the ultimate playground for collection,” he said. -New York Times

“Foreign intelligence services are looking for anyone with access to the information they want, whether classified or unclassified, including corporate trade secrets, intellectual property and other research,” said Evanina. 

Parello-Plesner, the Danish official, was contacted in 2011 by someone using the name Grace Woo. Woo said she worked for a headhunting company in Hangzhou, China called DRHR. When she discovered that Parello-Plesner would be in Beijing in 2012, she suggested a meeting in Hangzhou - asking for an image of his passport in order to make travel arrangements which he declined. 

He did, however, agree to meet at the St. Regis Hotel in Beijing. While Woo never showed up, a young man claiming to be from DRHR led the former official to a conference room where ‘three middle-aged men welcomed him,’ and explained they were from a government research organization. They had no business cards. 

“I thought, ‘This meeting is very dodgy,” said Parello-Plesner, who added that the men said they could fund his research if he worked with them. 

Instead, Parello-Plesner reported the contact to British officials after he returned to his home in London. 

Jonas Parello-Plesner, a former Danish Foreign Ministry official, reported an apparent recruiting attempt by the Chinese that began over LinkedIn.CreditCreditCarsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

“If I were LinkedIn, I would proactively do my homework now,” adding “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” 

DRHR was one of three companies German domestic intelligence officials singled out in December 2017 as front organizations for Chinese agents. Those officials concluded that Chinese agents had used LinkedIn to try to contact 10,000 Germans, and LinkedIn shut down some accounts, including those of DRHR and Ms. Woo.

Last October, French intelligence agencies told the government that Chinese agents had used social networks — LinkedIn in particular — to try to contact 4,000 French individuals. Targets included government employees, scientists and company executives, according to Le Figaro, the French newspaper. -New York Times

So remember former Western officials, beware Chinese LinkedIn users bearing gifts. 

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