Dutch intelligence service warns public about online recruitment by foreign spies

AIVD HollandLAST WEEK, THE DUTCH General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) launched an awareness campaign dubbed ‘Check before connecting’. The purpose of the campaign is to inform the Dutch public about risks of foreign actors using fake accounts on social media, in efforts to acquire sensitive business information. According to the AIVD, such online campaigns frequently target and recruit employees of Dutch private sector companies. The awareness campaign is carried out via Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. It is aimed at raising awareness in society at-large. The AIVD will publish a number of fictitious practical examples over time, in order to educate the public.

AIVD director-general Erik Akerboom told Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad that Dutch and other Western secret services have been surprised by the sheer number of cases in which private sector employees disclosed sensitive information, after being blackmailed or enticed with money to share information. After foreign intelligence operatives make initial contact with their target via LinkedIn, the relationship quickly turns more “personal”, according to Akerboom. The new contact acts flatteringly about the unsuspecting target’s knowledge and competence. “You are asked to translate something. This can be followed by a physical meeting”, he says.

Potential targets are “ranked” by their position in an organization, position in a business network, and level of access to sensitive information. “The rankings determine which persons are prioritized for recruitment attempts”, according to Akerboom. This sometimes involves the creation of fake human resource recruitment agencies, as British, Australian and American intelligence agencies have warned about in the past.

While not a new phenomenon, the scope and effectiveness of foreign infiltration attempts have now reached a scale that has prompted the AIVD to warn the public. China and Russia have made attempts to acquire advanced technology in Western countries, including the Netherlands, via corporate takeovers, digital espionage, and human intelligence operations. Last year, the Netherlands expelled two Russian spies who successfully recruited employees at a number of Dutch high-tech companies. One of the Russians created fake profiles posing as a scientist, consultant and recruiter. The AIVD did not disclose the names of these companies.

Former United States Department of Defense and National Security Agency senior intelligence officer Cody Barrow, now director of threat analysis at an Amsterdam-based cyber security company, says he estimates that “many thousands” of Dutch citizens have received LinkedIn invites from Chinese spies. Invites are often accepted carelessly, without checking the legitimacy of the profile who sends the invite. If other persons in one’s social network are already connected to that profile, a false sense of legitimacy can be created.

Cyber security expert Ronald Prins, who is a former technical member of the ex-ante oversight committee on the exercise of hacking and interception powers by Dutch intelligence services, thinks the awareness campaign is a good move. He adds, however, that the AIVD should be “more proactive” to detect attacks. He notes that the AIVD has no political mandate to act on attacks against economic interests. “When will they put effort into protecting the economic security of the Netherlands?”, Prins asks.

In 2021, Akerboom said that “all crown jewels” of the Dutch economy are at risk. In its yearly plan for 2022, the AIVD proposes to make “significant investments” into helping protect commercial companies and the “earning strength of the Netherlands”. In December 2021, the coalition agreement of the newly formed Dutch cabinet showed a €300 million extra budget for the intelligence services over the next five years. However, no concrete spending plans exist at the moment.

The AIVD previously warned of the risks that digital economic espionage poses to Dutch economic security in its annual reports of 2014 [pdf] and 2017. In its annual report for 2020, the AIVD noted that a data breach revealed that China kept an ‘overseas key influential’ database, containing data about 2.4 million influential persons abroad

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 15 February 2022 | Permalink

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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