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How a Chinese spy reportedly used LinkedIn to target UK officials for state secrets

A Chinese spy has been scouring Linkedin trying to entice thousands of British officials to give them state secrets in exchange for thousands of pounds and lucrative business deals, it has been reported.

According to The Times, an intelligence officer for the Chinese Communist Party’s main spy agency has been using a string of aliases and fake companies to target security officials, civil servants, scientists and academics with access to classified information or commercially sensitive technology.

It comes after Parliament’s spy agency watchdog the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) warned last month that Chinese intelligence targets the UK “prolifically and aggressively” and said successive governments have failed to grasp and respond to the scale of the threat posed by China.

How has the alleged spy been operating?

Western security services have told The Times that the agent, who goes by the main alias Robin Zhang, is the most prolific spy who has been deployed against the UK in years.

He is believed to operate from a desk that is thought to be at the Chinese Ministry of State Security’s (MSS) headquarters in Beijing.

He allegedly set up fake security companies and websites to build up trust and contacted officials working in fields such as the military, science and technology and politics.

One recruitment consultant was said to have been offered £8,000 every time they provided details of a candidate from the intelligence services.

And an ex-military intelligence official was promised large sums of cash for information on Britain’s counterterrorism work.

Other inducements offered included all-expenses paid trips to China and a place on lucrative conference circuits.

Who is the alleged spy?

The Times has said that revealing Zhang’s identity could risk revealing the identities of western spies.

But the paper has been told that his main pseudonyms are Zhang, Eric Chen Yixi, Robin Cao, Lincoln Lam, John Lee and Eric Kim.

He has claimed to be linked to Shanghai-based security companies and used stock images or photographs of innocent people to create Linkedin pages.

One profile uses a photograph that is believed to be of an innocent Hong Kong entrepreneur in Hong Kong who is not connected to the alleged spying operation.

‘Unprofessional and pushy’

A recruitment consultant who was targeted told The Times they became suspicious after Zhang offered them between £6,000 and £8,000 to provide details of a candidate in the intelligence services.

Another person said they Zhang was “unprofessional and pushy” by offering cash in exchange for sensitive information on bilateral relations with China.

He would try to hold conversations on the Chinese instant messaging social media channel WeChat.

According to The Times‘ security sources part of Zhang’s modus operandi would be to ask for a report on a subject within their expertise.

Approaches would then snowball into requests for secret information or documents.

He is thought to have initially contacted defence contractors, civil servants and targets in sensitive business areas before shifting his attention to think tanks and academics.

Effective methods

Sources told The Times that Zhang’s methods were effective as they were conducted on an industrial scale.

He would start out by describing his work before offering cash in exchange for a report, an invitation to an all-expense paid trip to a conference, or other lucrative business opportunities.

A former army colonel in British military intelligence Philip Ingram, who is a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons expert, accepted a LinkedIn request from “Robin” five years ago.

He told The Times that he wasasked to write a report on British counterterrorism networks, but quickly became suspicious after being told “we would want to get inside information that isn’t easily accessible to anyone.”

Mr Ingram said he ended the contact afterbeing invited to China, “where they would have tried to set up a honeytrap or some form of coercion”, adding “I’m certain there’s an entire department at MSS that is using these tactics.”

In response to The Times story, a Linkedin spokesperson said: “Creating a fake account is a clear violation of our terms of service. Our Threat Prevention and Defence 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.”

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