LinkedIn, national security and Chinese spies

Who are you really interacting with on your social media and professional networking accounts? Is it someone with similar likes and dislikes? A potential business contact? A recruiter offering you a lucrative, new job?

Kevin Mallory, a retired CIA officer, saw an opportunity when he was contacted by a headhunter on LinkedIn. The person put Mallory in touch with an organization claiming to be a Shanghai think tank. They were looking for a new consultant on foreign policy. Would Mallory be interested? How about for $25,000?

Eventually, Mallory realized he was being recruited by Chinese intelligence, but not before taking the money and handing over classified documents to his new “employer.” He now faces up to life in prison after being found guilty of espionage and other charges.

Mallory’s case highlights the fact that everything on the internet may not be as it seems. U.S. counter-intelligence officials have long been suspicious that social media networks were being utilized by Chinese intelligence to recruit and obtain classified and export-controlled information. Some initial warnings came from German and British authorities, who found that China was using LinkedIn to try to recruit their citizens as spies. Now, U.S. citizens are being warned.

Citing Beijing’s super-aggressive efforts on Linkedln, U.S. officials now advise that Chinese intelligence establishes fake accounts solely for the purpose of recruiting people and acquiring controlled technology from U.S. government and commercial sectors. According to these officials, China’s Ministry of State Security uses individuals to create fake accounts and then establish contact with prospective targets. Some of the accounts can be linked directly back to IP addresses associated with Chinese intelligence agencies. Others are front or phony companies. Some accounts describe themselves as “executive recruiting companies.” Others are supposedly academic entities offering payments or other enticements for professional papers or work products.

U.S. intelligence agencies report that some of the targeted job sectors include supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semiconductors, and stealth technology. Within the murky world of spies and espionage, recruitment is a slow, calculated process – carefully engaging prospective targets until they are either entrapped or enticed to the point that divulging sensitive information is no longer a concern.

While in the past, nations such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea have used LinkedIn and other forms of social media to identify and approach recruitment targets, U.S. officials now advise that China poses the biggest threat. It’s no wonder, then, that President Trump continually cites among China’s unfair trade practices the stealing of U.S. intellectual property and controlled information.

So, the next that time lucrative, “once-in-a-lifetime” job offer appears in your account .. the one that appears too good to be true … use caution. Let your common sense reign in your ego, because you may not be communicating with who you think you are. And most of all, be very careful with the information you’re being asked to provide. As the saying goes in our field, “an export is still an export” – even if it occurs by clicking the send button from one U.S. person to another foreign person.

Jim McShane is a Sr. Consultant, Trade Compliance for Export Solutions -- a full-service consulting firm specializing in ITAR and EAR regulations.