ASIO warns foreign spies trying to recruit people via social media
16th November 2020

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Foreign spies are taking to social media and professional networking websites such as LinkedIn to pose as global talent headhunters to get sensitive information from Australians.

Counter-espionage agency ASIO will on Tuesday launch a public campaign to warn Australians that the websites are "fertile hunting grounds" for spies trying to identify, groom and recruit Australians with security clearances.

ASIO has identified a number of countries using social media to approach Australians who could become an asset for their intelligence services.

Australians in government jobs with high-level security clearances, as well as individuals working for defence contractors, are a major target, but ASIO warns all Australian businesses and employees should be on alert.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said Australians needed to be mindful of what personal and professional information they were posting online, warning foreign intelligence services can use it to identify and groom them.

"When I was young, my mum used to say, 'If it’s too good to be true, it probably is'. That warning applies as much today as it did back then, online and in everyday life," Mr Burgess said.

"Hostile foreign intelligence agencies have always sought access to personal information because they want to cultivate and recruit potential targets as sources.

"In the past, attempted recruitment was time-intensive, expensive and risky because the foreign intelligence officers would need to operate on location and in person. Now, they can use the internet to work from the safety of their overseas headquarters, sending thousands of friend and networking requests with the click of a mouse."

ASIO's "Think Before You Link Campaign" will tell Australian government employees, as well as businesses and their staff – to be aware of suspicious approaches online and to report them.

In one case study based on a true story, an individual named "Jack" who works in the defence industry updates his professional networking profile to make it obvious he has access to sensitive information. A woman from a foreign intelligence service, posing as a talent headhunter, then contacts him and gives him a fake job offer.

"Don't end up like Jack, be aware foreign spies are targeting Australians online," the video warns. "Be discrete – don't boast about your access to sensitive information. And be responsible. Report suspicious approaches to your security manager."

While ASIO did not name the countries involved in attempts to recruit Australians online, security sources have previously linked China and Russia to espionage and foreign interference activities in Australia.

ASIO this year foiled a plot by foreign intelligence operatives to recruit senior government staffers to provide classified information about Australia’s counterespionage activities.

Mr Burgess said the threat was "not confined to any particular nation".

"Working with our Five Eyes partners, we are focusing on individuals and groups who are likely to be targeted by foreign intelligence services, particularly those who have access to sensitive information.

"But our message also applies to all Australians: be mindful of what personal and professional information you post online – foreign intelligence services can use it to identify you, target you and groom you."

"If a stranger reaches out online, ask yourself if you really know who you are talking to. The friendly, generous young person claiming to be a global head-hunter or think tank researcher might actually be a foreign spy trying to win your trust and steal your secrets."

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