China’s Use of LinkedIn for Espionage Should Put Security Officers on Alert

Intelligence

DoD Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

When the Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) speaks, all Facility Security Officers (FSO) should be listening. Frequently what he has to say will impact their relationship with their cleared personnel. This morning’s revelation by the director, William R. Evanina, as to the level of engagement which China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) enjoys within LinkedIn is a prime example.

Counter-intel chief is putting LinkedIn on notice

Evanina’s admonishment was as much for public consumption as it was to put the social network LinkedIn on notice to step up and police their environment.

Was the use of social networks by hostile intelligence entities a new revelation? No, it was old news to those who are users of ClearanceJobs.

The pages of Clearance Jobs has been calling out the counterintelligence threat posed by social networks for many years. In addition, those professional networks where cleared personnel are being culled do not have the protections in place that ClearanceJobs utilizes. There is no validating job seekers or job posters in the world of LinkedIn – thus highlighting the value of closed networks, over open networks.

With Large numberS Come  Hostile foreign threats

FSOs may be surprised to learn just how many foreigners (that is foreign to the U.S., as ClearanceJobs only caters to the U.S. cleared job market) utilize LinkedIn, pay for the “professional level of access” and can scour and scrape the profiles and resumes (if availed) of your cleared personnel.

Here’s LinkedIn’s data from January 2018. It’s increased a bit since then, but not enough to adjust the discussion point.

And here is LinkedIn’s regional penetration:

When you have over a billion people in your population, the laws of large numbers take over. There are 40+ million LinkedIn accounts from China and some of those are being sponsored by the MSS – and thankfully you don’t have to trust me on that, the NCSC director just told you. Here’s some data from ThinkNum.

Country # LinkedIn Users Total Population Penetration
United States 143,769,611.00 323,127,513.00 44%
India 45,028,066.00 1,324,171,354.00 3%
China 40,690,318.00 1,378,665,000.00 3%

FSO Action Required

I encourage every FSO to take the case of Kevin Patrick Mallory and evolve it into a counterintelligence teaching moment. This individual was a former government employee and cleared contractor who was spotted on LinkedIn. Then after his recruitment by the MSS, used LinkedIn to enhance his utility to the hostile foreign intelligence service.

No longer should FSOs use the stock counterintelligence briefing in their annual brief to cleared personnel. The mandated insider threat program provides each FSO with the opportunity to localize the national counterintelligence message for their personnel. The job the cleared personnel may be saving by being counterintelligence savvy is their own – but the information they may be securing are the nation’s secrets.

FSOs have the opportunity to make the security of the United States personal in those counterintelligence briefings; I have no doubt that they will do what’s necessary to protect their cleared employees and the nation.

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).

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