Those who are on online invariably also have a presence within the milieu we call “social networks.” One of the most popular social networks for professionals  is LinkedIn, which continues to be highlighted by intelligence professionals including the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), for the aggressive measures being taken by China to turn professional networking into intelligence gathering.

The indictments and convictions for espionage with references to LinkedIn continue to increase, but the U.S. is not alone.

Counterintelligence entities within the governments of the United Kingdom and Germany in their own annual counterintelligence reports to their oversight committees, have highlighted how the leveraging of LinkedIn to advance China’s espionage goals are not hypothetical.

When you crunch the numbers, it’s not hard to see why the social network is a tool of choice for foreign intelligence operations – the numbers reveal how bountiful the harvest of opportunity is.

According to LinkedIn, as of April 2019 they have over 610 million users in 200 countries (including 32 million in China and 154 million the United States). For those trying to identify Chinese intelligence operators within the 32 million, or those who are being targeted within the United States, pack a lunch: It will be a full day.

You will find the vast majority are individuals attempting to network and to line up their next gig. If your contact professes to be a “dissident” and is trying to connect with you online, run, don’t walk.

LinkedIn’s presence in China isn’t without its issues. In January 2019, the social network stifled the thoughts and opinions of Chinese activist Fengsuo Zhou.

Some days later, the social network reversed the decision. Twitter and Facebook have also had bumpy incarnations within China, but LinkedIn survives by playing by China’s rules.

Within the social networking entourage from China’s intelligence apparatus, you will find the pseudo hiring managers, consultants, event organizers and more, all with an opportunity to engage you, on their turf. This engagement, while filled with opportunity, is really the opportunity to assess, develop and eventually recruit the unsuspecting and gullible foreigner who has access to information of interest to China.

Taking the target from online to in-person

A target will be lured via an invitation to connect online, but the opportunity may quickly present to travel to Shanghai, Beijing or another city. Before you know it you’ve entered into a confidential – aka clandestine  – relationship from which it is difficult to extract oneself. You may tell yourself the free educational trip had nothing to do with your position, experience, and access to classified information. If you have second thoughts, Chinese intelligence operatives may even threaten to turn in the subject themselves and prove the relationship was more than informational. Experience tells us that an individual hoodwinked into a nefarious relationship falling under the cape of espionage has a short shelf-life.

The Best Spy: The collaborator

A truly valuable asset may embark on a fully collaborative relationship, where they leverage their own personal, trusted online network – thus hiding the Chinese hand.

Every FSO, for years, has been schooled to include in their counterintelligence briefing that all foreign contacts must be reported, with emphasis on those from China, Russia, and other nations which have demonstrated the ability to recruit, elicit and obtain secrets from targeted entities. Few, if any, have been including in their counterintelligence briefings the need to watch for friends, professional colleagues and the person sitting in the next cubicle to that list, and if is exactly this absence of messaging which has embolden the Chinese intelligence operations to embrace the use of surrogates.

If a Doubting Thomas exists? Present to them the case of Kevin Mallory and how he became that collaborative asset for the Chinese, harvested from his personal social networks and then evolving to the collaborative harvester on behalf of China.

Caveat utilitor applies.

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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).