According to German intelligence sources, LinkedIn is now the latest social media network to have been exploited for clandestine political purposes, with China facing accusations it used the platform for espionage.
Germany’s security agency, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), claims that up to 10,000 fake LinkedIn accounts may have been created with the aim of enticing high-ranking German political and economic leaders to become informants.
Many of the fake accounts are made to represent young and promising Chinese professionals, such as “Allen Liu” — a supposed human resources manager at an economic consultancy — and “Lily Wu” — an employee working for a think tank in eastern China.
So far China has not responded to the claims, although it has refuted similar suggestions in the past.
It seems the BfV believes the target of these fake accounts is primarily German workers in government ministries, with BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen stating:
“This is a broad-based attempt to infiltrate in particular parliaments, ministries and government agencies.”
If this accusation is true, then LinkedIn joins a long line of social media platforms that have been exploited for political gain. Facebook has recently been at the center of controversy regarding Russian state sponsored ‘fake news’ during the recent US elections, while YouTube and Wikipedia is similarly struggling to deal with so-called ‘web brigades’ — groups of paid ‘trolls’ who promote various political ideologies on open internet platforms.
Of course, the very things which make these sites useful and popular, they’re free and open nature, is also what makes them attractive tools for nefarious government agencies. LinkedIn may be particularly attractive primarily due to its high status users and the fact it is one of the few social networks not to be banned in China. Although technical solutions, for example public verification systems (perhaps even a blockchain approach?), could help prevent this kind of abuse in the future, for the time being the best defense appears to be old-fashioned vigilance.
Maassen advised any individuals who thought they had been affected by fake accounts to contact the BfV.