You Only Like Twice – The Social Media Wars
In 2019 we saw one of those media stories which, although hugely important, largely slid under the radar for most people. Former CIA officer, Kevin Patrick Mallory, received a 20-year prison sentence for passing classified documents to a Chinese intelligence officer. Mallory was in debt and behind on his mortgage. The Chinese agent first made contact with him via LinkedIn.
In the years leading up to Mallory’s conviction, there were a spate of other cases of Chinese intelligence officers recruiting recently retired CIA officers, often making the first contact on social media platforms.
This all begs the question, how many spies have we been talking to over the past ten years? Potentially, we all could have been contacted at some point.
Last year, a doctoral student from Singapore admitted in a US court that he had used a front company on LinkedIn to lure retired US intelligence agents into handing over secrets for cash.
This has clearly been an organised programme of the Chinese intelligence services for some time, and it does seem to have had a good deal of success. The method of communication is new, but the strategy is as old as time. Someone gets into debt, having personal difficulties or offered cash and they are a soft target.
This week, MI5 in the UK was forced to issue a warning to 450,000 civil servants, academics and industry leaders that they were potential targets for agents of hostile states. Interestingly, they went out of their way not to mention China as it tries to determine its diplomatic place in the world post-Brexit.
The most interesting thing about the new world of social media spies and espionage is that it isn’t just a secret battle between world powers, it is out in the open.
In between battling China on LinkedIn and mailing 450,000 potential targets, MI5 also found time to set up an Instagram account. Those of us who remember the days pre-1989, when the very existence of MI5 was a state secret, will be a bit surprised at this. The head of MI6 has a Twitter account, as does the head of GCHQ.
The strategy seems to be to use the platforms to make the UK’s intelligence services more open and transparent, but also to recruit new agents. A wider range of experiences, backgrounds and aptitudes certainly seems like a good way to go.
It’s a long way from the days when you would be recruited by MI6 via a quiet tap on the shoulder from one of your Oxbridge professors is long gone.