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US intelligence official warns that Chinese government is running covert operation through LinkedIn

U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that China is using fake LinkedIn accounts to attempt to contact and recruit potential spies with access to government and corporate secrets. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

A top U.S. counterintelligence official is warning that Chinese espionage agencies are using fake LinkedIn accounts to attempt to get information from Americans with access to government and commercial secrets, Reuters news reported.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials have informed LinkedIn that China is aggressively attempting to recruit spies through the popular networking site, William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, told Reuters.

The Center's role includes protecting the U.S. from intelligence and security threats, according to its website.

China's campaign is contacting “thousands of LinkedIn members at a time,” Evanina told Reuters. He declined to indicate the number of fake accounts that U.S. intelligence has uncovered. He also declined to say how many Americans may have been contacted.

Targets of the recruitment campaign are often experts in the fields of super-computing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, health care, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy, the report states.

Chinese intelligence may also use bribery or phony business propositions to entice people, according to the report. One way this is done is by offering academics and scientists payment for scholarly papers. In some cases, they are later pressured into revealing U.S. government or commercial secrets, the report states.

Is this happening in other countries?

German and British authorities have previously warned citizens that Beijing uses LinkedIn to try to recruit spies. According to Reuters, this appears to be the first time a U.S. official has publicly discussed China targeting the U.S. in the same way.

Evanina suggested LinkedIn should follow the actions of Twitter, Google and Facebook — and purge fake accounts with suspected ties to Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies.

“It is highly unusual for a senior U.S. intelligence official to single out an American-owned company by name and publicly recommend it take action,” Reuters stated.

What has LinkedIn said?

Paul Rockwell, LinkedIn’s head of trust and safety, confirmed to Reuters that the company has had discussions with U.S. law enforcement agencies regarding Chinese espionage.

“We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity,” Rockwell told the news agency. “We’ve never waited for requests to act and actively identify bad actors and remove bad accounts using information we uncover and intelligence from a variety of sources including government agencies.”

The U.S. maintains that China’s Ministry of State Security works with outside contractors to set up fake accounts that are used to approach potential recruits.

Earlier this month, LinkedIn announced that it took down almosst 40 fake accounts with users who attempted to contact members associated with unidentified political organizations. Rockwell did not indicate if the accounts originated in China, according to the report.

China’s foreign ministry denied Evanina’s allegations, Reuters reported.

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