UK officials becoming targets for foreign spies on social media, MI5 chief says

Fake profiles on networking sites are being used to gain information on national security

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Thousands of government officials, high-tech businesses and academics are the target of foreign agents on online networking sites, the head of the UK's MI5 has said.

More than 10,000 “disguised approaches” have been made by agents looking to build relationships with their targets, said the security service’s director general, Ken McCallum.

Fake profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are being used on an “industrial scale” in an attempt to gain information on national security.

Current and former civil servants can be attractive targets because of their experience.

The government’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure has launched a new app aimed at preventing people from being duped by fake accounts.

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

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

He said the “Think Before You Link” app helps those who may be receiving disguised approaches to conduct “digital due diligence” before connecting with unknown contacts online.

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

“The online threat via social media is increasing, with fake profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook being created on an industrial scale,” said Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay, the minister responsible for cyber security.

“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.

“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.”

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Officials pointed to a report from LinkedIn that showed 11.6 million fake accounts were stopped at the registration stage in the first six months of 2021.

The site, widely used by professionals as a networking tool, bans fake profiles and requires that members be “real people who represent themselves accurately and contribute authentically”.

“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,” said a representative for LinkedIn.

“Our Transparency Report sets out the actions that we take to keep LinkedIn a safe place where real people can connect with professionals they know and trust, including that 97 per cent of the fake accounts we removed were blocked at registration.

“We welcome the continued efforts in the UK of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure.”

Updated: May 17, 2022, 12:24 AM