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The economic rivalry between the United States and China seems to be entering a dangerous new phase, with concerns being voiced at the highest levels of the U.S. government that Chinese intelligence agents are infiltrating social media platform LinkedIn in order to recruit American spies and carry out economic espionage at an unprecedented level. According to the top U.S. counter-intelligence chief, Chinese spies are becoming “super aggressive” in their espionage efforts and now view LinkedIn as a way to tap into America’s business networks and gain access to valuable intellectual property.
China, as might be expected, has called this accusation “complete nonsense,” and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has said that the U.S. might have “ulterior motives” for publicizing the whole LinkedIn Chinese spy story. After all, this does seem like a bit of paranoia, fueled in part by the past three years of U.S. officials hearing about evil Russian troll factories infiltrating social media platforms and subverting American democracy. So now we get a new twist on the story, and it’s all about evil Chinese spies infiltrating social media platforms and subverting American capitalism.
Possible responses for LinkedIn
So what can LinkedIn do to solve this problem? The most obvious solution is to follow the path laid out by fellow social media giants Facebook and Twitter, both of which are now actively purging social media accounts linked to alleged Russian bad actors. LinkedIn could adopt the same approach, and simply ban or remove any accounts it feels are being controlled by Chinese intelligence agents at China’s Ministry of State Security (China’s version of the CIA).
Except, well, it’s not quite as easy as you might think to do this. For one, there’s nobody stupid enough to list “Chinese spy” on their LinkedIn profile description, so how do you figure out who’s legit and who’s not? After all, there are 562 million users of LinkedIn worldwide – you simply can’t ban millions of accounts from a certain country.
And, to make things even harder to figure out for LinkedIn, even the U.S. National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center acknowledges that China is working via a system of “co-optees” rather than directly via spies. In other words, a top Chinese manager might be asked by a Chinese spy agency to find out whatever he or she can about U.S. efforts in a certain technology field (e.g. nanotechnology or stealth technology), and then relay this knowledge back to Beijing. This is essentially the “Huawei model” of espionage, according to top U.S. officials. They view the Chinese tech giant as a front organization for the Chinese government, and accuse top Huawei managers of gathering up intelligence information around the world, and relaying it back to Beijing.
The path forward for social media companies
At the end of the day, social media companies – whether it’s LinkedIn or Facebook or Google – make convenient scapegoats. They are truly global operations, churning out billions of dollars in revenue every quarter. Most likely, this latest Chinese spy story will only intensify efforts by legislators to slap new regulations on these companies, and perhaps break them up entirely into smaller pieces. So, even if LinkedIn doesn’t want to get involved in this Chinese spy scandal, acting openly and transparently might be the only way to avoid much more onerous penalties or regulations coming out of Washington, D.C. in 2020.