While the overt theft of intellectual property and other trade secrets by the Chinese government has been a focal point of President Trump’s trade war with China, recent reports reveal how social media has emerged as one of the Chinese government’s preferred methods of espionage. Instead of sending operatives to the United States to target and influence specific individuals with access to classified government information or secret technology, China has shifted its strategy towards online recruitment, thereby eliminating the inherent risk of capture and indictment present when its agents operate on U.S. soil. Under this method, Chinese intelligence agents quickly identify and engage large numbers of potential sources of sensitive information over the internet. The rapid flow of information over the internet allows intelligence agents to reach a far larger population of individuals with desirable information or contacts than would be possible by using traditional recruitment methods.

LinkedIn has proven to be the ideal medium for these actions, with former U.S. government officials and intelligence officers openly advertising their connections and security clearances on the website in the hopes of securing private sector jobs or consulting contracts. Usually posing as interested academics or opportunistic businessmen, Chinese agents message targets and attempt to lure them to China for a meeting. Once a relationship is established, the agents begin the process of extracting information. After the initial contacts via social media, the Chinese intelligence agents will provide their target with a secure and clandestine mode of communication such as an encrypted cell phone. Though attempts at corrupting nontraditional sources such as students, researchers, and business insiders have increased in recent years, the concurrent trials of three ex-intelligence officials in the last year show the risk of corrupted U.S. officials is very real.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, American intelligence agencies shifted their attention from the traditional surveillance of foreign powers to the identification and elimination of extremists who may pose immediate threats to U.S. interests and security. Because any conflict between the United States and China is likely to take place as a race for information rather than as a conventional war on a physical battlefield, this change in focus may be ignoring the potentially disastrous impact of failing to bolster our cybersecurity. While LinkedIn has a policy of shutting down fake accounts and the U.S. government has counterintelligence officials on the lookout for foreign influences, the question remains whether the government is allocating enough resources to meet the problems posed by espionage conducted (at least at the outset) via social media. Additional regulations may be necessary to ensure that social media companies provide the government with the information needed to spot these trends as they arise or change.

John Campo 

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