WASHINGTON • The top spy catcher in the United States has said Chinese espionage agencies are using fake LinkedIn accounts to try to recruit Americans with access to government and commercial secrets, and the company should shut them down.
Mr William Evanina, the US counter-intelligence chief, told Reuters in an interview that intelligence and law enforcement officials have told LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, about China's "super aggressive" efforts on the site.
He said the Chinese campaign includes contacting thousands of LinkedIn members at a time, but he declined to say how many fake accounts US intelligence had discovered, how many Americans may have been contacted and how much success China has had in the recruitment drive.
The German and British authorities have previously warned their citizens that Beijing is using LinkedIn to try to recruit them as spies.
But this is the first time that an American official has publicly discussed the challenge in the US and indicated that it is a bigger problem than previously known.
Mr Evanina said LinkedIn should look at copying the response of Twitter, Google and Facebook, which have all purged fake accounts allegedly linked to Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies.
"I recently saw that Twitter is cancelling, I don't know, millions of fake accounts, and our request would be maybe LinkedIn could go ahead and be part of that," said Mr Evanina, who heads the US National Counter-Intelligence and Security Centre.
It is highly unusual for a senior US intelligence official to single out an American-owned company by name and publicly recommend that it take action. LinkedIn boasts 562 million users in more than 200 counties and territories, including 149 million US members.
Mr Evanina did not, however, say whether he was frustrated by LinkedIn's response or whether he believes it has done enough.
LinkedIn's head of trust and safety, Mr Paul Rockwell, confirmed the company had been talking to US law enforcement agencies about Chinese espionage efforts.
Last month, LinkedIn said it had taken down "less than 40" fake accounts whose users were attempting to contact LinkedIn members associated with unidentified political organisations. Mr Rockwell did not say whether those were Chinese accounts.
"We are doing everything we can to identify and stop this activity," he told Reuters. "We've never waited for requests to act and actively identify bad actors and remove bad accounts using information we uncover and intelligence from a variety of sources, including government agencies."
China's Foreign Ministry disputed Mr Evanina's allegations.
"We do not know what evidence the relevant US officials you cite have to reach this conclusion. What they say is complete nonsense and has ulterior motives," the ministry said in a statement.
Mr Evanina said he was speaking out in part because of the case of Kevin Mallory, a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer convicted in June of conspiring to commit espionage for China.
A fluent Mandarin speaker, Mallory was struggling financially when he was contacted via a LinkedIn message in February last year by a Chinese national posing as a headhunter, according to court records and trial evidence.
Mr Evanina said five current and former US officials - including Mallory - have been charged with or convicted of spying for China in the past 21/2 years.
While Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations also use LinkedIn and other platforms to identify recruitment targets, US intelligence officials said China is the most prolific and poses the biggest threat. They said the targets include experts in fields such as supercomputing, nuclear energy, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, stealth technology, healthcare, hybrid grains, seeds and green energy.