Foreign Spies Using Networking Sites to Groom UK Officials: MI5

Foreign spies have extended their dark arts to the world of online networking sites and are targeting politicians, business chiefs, and academics, the head of Britain’s security service has warned.Ken McCallum, director general of MI5, said hostile agents are using so-called “disguised approaches” on an industrial scale to build relationships  to gain national security information. Current and former civil servants were prime targets because of their experience, and those in in high-tech businesses and in academia were also singled out for grooming. “Foreign spies are actively working to build relationships with those working in government, in high-tech business, and in academia,” McCallum said. He added, “MI5 has seen over 10,000 disguised approaches on professional networking sites from foreign spies to people up and down the UK.” Spooks with phony accounts are operating on LinkedIn and Facebook on an “industrial scale” the government warned. Concerned by the threat, the UK government’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure has launched a new app called Think Before You Link to urge potential targets to conduct their own “digital due diligence” before accepting unknown contacts online. The app will boost the support and advice that government staff, particularly those working on sensitive policy, already receive. “The online threat via social media is increasing … Many of these profiles are established as an elaborate ruse for eliciting details from either officials or members of the public who may have access to information relating to our national security,” said Steve Barclay, the government minister responsible for cyber security. He added: “It is therefore crucial that we do all we can to protect ourselves and our information, ensuring those who we connect with online are who they say they are. This new app will be an important tool in that endeavour.” The government cited a LinkedIn report which showed 11.6 million fake accounts were stopped at the registration stage in the first six months of 2021. A LinkedIn spokesperson said, “Our Threat Intelligence team actively seeks out signs of state sponsored activity and removes fake accounts using information we uncover, and intelligence from a variety of sources, including government agencies.” The logo for LinkedIn Corporation is shown in Mountain View, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2013. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters) Though the government did not name any particular nations involved, it is widely accepted China and Russia invest significantly in online spying using fake accounts. China was singled out recently for hiding spies in plain sight, after it was claimed a lawyer, Christine Lee, circulated widely inside Parliament, befriending a number of MPs. In January, MPs were warned to avoid contact with Lee, 58, who had been monitored by the security services for some time. MI5 said Lee had “facilitated” donations to British political parties and legislators “on behalf of foreign nationals.” It is alleged Lee works for Beijing’s United Front Works Department, which operates in parallel with China’s more conventional espionage operations. Such subtle influence was among the topics in the 2021 book “Hidden Hand” by Australian academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, which details the Chinese Communist Party’s global program of influence “and subversion,” and the threat many believe it poses to democracy. PA Media contributed to this report. Follow Peter Simpson is a British journalist who has worked for major international news media and spent a decade covering China from Beijing, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during which he broke many exclusives. He is interested in all facets of the Sino-UK relationship and geopolitics. Other interests include sport, business, culture, and travel.

Foreign Spies Using Networking Sites to Groom UK Officials: MI5

Foreign spies have extended their dark arts to the world of online networking sites and are targeting politicians, business chiefs, and academics, the head of Britain’s security service has warned.

Ken McCallum, director general of MI5, said hostile agents are using so-called “disguised approaches” on an industrial scale to build relationships  to gain national security information.

Current and former civil servants were prime targets because of their experience, and those in in high-tech businesses and in academia were also singled out for grooming.

“Foreign spies are actively working to build relationships with those working in government, in high-tech business, and in academia,” McCallum said.

He added, “MI5 has seen over 10,000 disguised approaches on professional networking sites from foreign spies to people up and down the UK.”

Spooks with phony accounts are operating on LinkedIn and Facebook on an “industrial scale” the government warned.

Concerned by the threat, the UK government’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure has launched a new app called Think Before You Link to urge potential targets to conduct their own “digital due diligence” before accepting unknown contacts online.

The app will boost the support and advice that government staff, particularly those working on sensitive policy, already receive.

“The online threat via social media is increasing … Many of these profiles are established as an elaborate ruse for eliciting details from either officials or members of the public who may have access to information relating to our national security,” said Steve Barclay, the government minister responsible for cyber security.

He added: “It is therefore crucial that we do all we can to protect ourselves and our information, ensuring those who we connect with online are who they say they are. This new app will be an important tool in that endeavour.”

The government cited a LinkedIn report which showed 11.6 million fake accounts were stopped at the registration stage in the first six months of 2021.

A LinkedIn spokesperson said, “Our Threat Intelligence team actively seeks out signs of state sponsored activity and removes fake accounts using information we uncover, and intelligence from a variety of sources, including government agencies.”

LinkedIn logo
The logo for LinkedIn Corporation is shown in Mountain View, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2013. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Though the government did not name any particular nations involved, it is widely accepted China and Russia invest significantly in online spying using fake accounts.

China was singled out recently for hiding spies in plain sight, after it was claimed a lawyer, Christine Lee, circulated widely inside Parliament, befriending a number of MPs.

In January, MPs were warned to avoid contact with Lee, 58, who had been monitored by the security services for some time.

MI5 said Lee had “facilitated” donations to British political parties and legislators “on behalf of foreign nationals.”

It is alleged Lee works for Beijing’s United Front Works Department, which operates in parallel with China’s more conventional espionage operations.

Such subtle influence was among the topics in the 2021 book “Hidden Hand” by Australian academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, which details the Chinese Communist Party’s global program of influence “and subversion,” and the threat many believe it poses to democracy.

PA Media contributed to this report.


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Peter Simpson is a British journalist who has worked for major international news media and spent a decade covering China from Beijing, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during which he broke many exclusives. He is interested in all facets of the Sino-UK relationship and geopolitics. Other interests include sport, business, culture, and travel.