I love using LinkedIn. it is the social media platform I have used the longest, since I half-jokingly called it “Facebook for grown-ups” when I joined in 2007… long before I broke down and joined Mark Zuckerberg’s enormously entertaining time-suck. The professional network I’ve cultivated on LinkedIn is a valuable resource when I can’t quite crack a problem, or when I’m looking for unvarnished feedback.
While a common practice is to accept almost any connection request, there are good times to say “no.” Some people just want to connect to send you a sales pitch, which is annoying, but ultimately harmless. For that reason, when I get a request from someone with almost no professional history listed on their profile, who appears to be in sales, but is not in the public relations or national security fields, I quietly ignore the request.
Likewise, there have been a few times when women who are not in those fields— women with impossibly stunning profile photos that are a tad unprofessional—want to connect, I also quietly decline. Such requests are at best clickbait firms looking for valid contact info to add to spam campaigns, and at worst, identity thieves.
But increasingly, there’s another reason to be suspicious of out-of-the-blue connection requests, especially for cleared professionals: espionage.
The Foreign Intelligence Goldmine: LinkedIn
In 2015, Dell SecureWorks uncovered 25 fake LinkedIn profiles that were likely Iranian intelligence sockpuppets targeting individuals who worked in middle Eastern telecommunications companies. Last year, amid all the allegations of Russian information operations, several national security and international relations scholars and practitioners who were critical of Russia reported being harassed on the site by pro-Russian “trolls.” One individual even told Newsweek that a Russian-sounding man engaged him in what seemed to be a random conversation in a London bar, but threw-in details he could only have learned from his LinkedIn profile.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV, which translates as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) uncovered the latest cyber-espionage, this time from the Chinese. In a nine-month study (sorry, the link is in German) the BfV discovered more than 10,000 contact attempts on LinkedIn from fake accounts linked to Chinese intelligence.
These operatives “disguise themselves as members of headhunting agencies, consulting firms and think tanks or as scientists” in order to establish a relationship with their target. Not surprisingly, “Many of the profile pictures show stylish and visually appealing young men and women.” They determined at least one photo was copied from a fashion website.
Many of the German targets were government employees. The BfV called it a “broad attempt” to infiltrate the government through LinkedIn. In typical fashion, the Chinese government predictably denied the allegations. “We hope the relevant German organizations, particularly government departments, can speak and act more responsibly, and not do things that are not beneficial to the development of bilateral relations,” said Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Reuters.
LinkedIn’s parent company, Microsoft, announced Monday that they had deleted the fake profiles Identified by the BfV. But caution is still warranted. The site is a valuable tool, but like any online activity, you should proceed carefully and think twice before accepting the connection request from the attractive stranger half your age.