Germany Accuses Chinese Intelligence Services Of Using Fake LinkedIn Profiles To Recruit Informants And Extract Sensitive Information
from the well,-of-course-it's-not-just-Russia dept
Over the last year, the scale of Russia’s disinformation activities has become clearer. Its Internet Research Agency has deployed an astonishing range of sophisticated techniques, included accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and hiring activists within the US without the latter being aware they were working for the Russian government. We also now know that the same organization has been buying Facebook ads on a large scale that were seen by over a hundred million US citizens. But it would be naïve to think that Russia is the only foreign power engaged in this kind of activity. In fact, it would be surprising if any intelligence agency worth its salt were not carrying out similar activities around the globe. The first detailed information about China’s use of fake social media accounts to recruit informants and extract sensitive information has just been published by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service. As Reuters reports:
Nine months of research had found that more than 10,000 German citizens had been contacted on the LinkedIn professional networking site by fake profiles disguised as headhunters, consultants, think-tankers or scholars, the BfV said.
Quartz quotes the BfV’s president, Hans-Georg Maaßen, as saying:
“We are dealing with a broad attempt to infiltrate parliaments, ministries and administrations,” said Maaßen. ?Chinese intelligence services are using new strategies of attack in the digital space.”
An interim report on the analysis that appeared on the BfV site in July (original in German) explains how the Chinese operated. The supposed headhunters, scholars and Chinese officials claimed that there were interested in the specialism of the person being approached. They inquired about a possible exchange of professional views on the topic, and spoke of an “important customer” in China:
the Chinese contact persons ask those involved for a curriculum vitae and offered to pay for a trial project. If this was completed satisfactorily, an invitation is made to go to China to meet with the “important customer”, with the costs of the stay being covered by the Chinese side. In fact, however, the “important customer” never appears and is not explicitly named. In due course, the persons involved are usually asked regularly to write reports in return for appropriate remuneration, or to pass on internal, sensitive information from the respective work area.
As part of its report, the BfV published a selection of the fake profies. Reuters explains:
Many of the profile pictures show stylish and visually appealing young men and women. The picture of “Laeticia Chen”, a manager at the “China Center of International Politics and Economy” was nicked from an online fashion catalogue, an official said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang was, of course shocked by the accusations, which he called “baseless”:
“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,” Lu said.
The implicit threat there chimes with two other stories about China that Techdirt published last month. In one of them, the Chinese authorities put pressure on the academic publisher Springer Nature to censor thousands of papers that dealt with topics that showed China in a less than flattering light. Similarly, Allen & Unwin was “persuaded” by the Chinese authorities not to publish a book about China’s growing but covert influence in Australia. The row between Australia and China has since escalated further. The latter denounced remarks by Australian politicians as being “full of prejudices against China”, and lodged a formal protest. Taken with the latest news of China’s attempts to recruit informants using social media, these recent events are evidence of a newly aggressive China on the world scene — and of what The Economist calls China’s “sharp power“.