New app to counter malicious approaches

Close up of half open laptop

New ‘Think Before you Link’ App will help businesses and the public protect themselves from potential espionage.

  • 20 May 2022
  • 5 min read

An innovative new app allowing users of social media and professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, to better identify the hallmarks of fake profiles used by foreign spies and other malicious actors, and take steps to report and remove them, has been launched today.

In the last year over 10,000 UK nationals from across business and society have been targeted in such ways online. The use of fake profiles on social media and professional networking sites is occurring at scale.

The use of fake profiles is a significant issue for the users of social media and professional networking sites. In the first half of last year alone LinkedIn stopped 11.6m fake accounts at registration1. Estimates based on the University of Portsmouth’s research findings2 suggest that around 16.8m LinkedIn users may have accepted unknown contacts, with 1.6m of them working in industries classified as sensitive.

The research was carried out by Professor Mark Button and Dr David Shepherd of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth. It involved a survey of 1,000 UK professionals who use either LinkedIn or Facebook for professional networking. The survey data was collected in April 2022.

The research shows that awareness of the potential threat from state actors is lower than other potential online threats. When users of LinkedIn and Facebook were asked specifically about fake profiles and the motives of perpetrators more generally, they were most likely to think of trolling (80 per cent), fraud (80 per cent) and fake news (79 per cent), rather than economic espionage (64 per cent). Over half of users (53 per cent) could not name a state that posts fake profiles. And yet, three quarters say they have knowingly received link requests from suspicious profiles.

The Think Before You Link app helps those who may be receiving disguised approaches, helping them to conduct their own digital due diligence before accepting unknown contacts online.

Ken McCallum , Director General of MI5

The new app is part of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure’s (CPNI) ‘Think Before You Link’ campaign. It has been developed with behavioural scientists to include features such as a profile reviewer, which will help individuals identify potentially fake profiles and report anything they deem suspicious.

The launch of the app comes as increased espionage by state actors persistently threatens the UK, and is increasingly conducted online. However, the new research from the University of Portsmouth shows that many social media and professional networking site users are unaware of the potential risks; 51 per cent of users automatically accept link requests, whilst 45 per cent believe that the targeting of individuals is a rare occurrence.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay said: “We know that the threat from online is increasing, with fake profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook being created on an industrial scale.

“This activity can affect anyone and is a risk to our national security and businesses across the country.

“The new app will help spot malicious approaches and I encourage everyone to download it and make use of its valuable information.”

Hostile actors can easily use social media to conduct online research into an individual's interests, activities and personal and professional connections. They can then use that information to target the individual online.

Vincent Devine, Government Chief Security Officer

Current and former civil servants can also be attractive targets because of their experience and if their positions are listed on sites such as LinkedIn, with this carrying the risk of fake offers of lucrative consultancy work if they connect with unknown users. This app will therefore boost the support and advice which government staff and particularly those working on sensitive policy, already receive.

New tools, such as the ‘Think Before You Link’ app, will enable users to conduct their own digital due diligence and aims to increase awareness of the growing threat from digital espionage to the UK workforce and citizens.

Director General of MI5 Ken McCallum said: “MI5 has seen over 10,000 disguised approaches on professional networking sites from foreign spies to people up and down the UK. Foreign spies are actively working to build relationships with those working in government, in high-tech business and in academia.

“The Think Before You Link app helps those who may be receiving disguised approaches, helping them to conduct their own digital due diligence before accepting unknown contacts online.”

Vincent Devine, the Government Chief Security Officer said: “Hostile actors can easily use social media to conduct online research into an individual's interests, activities and personal and professional connections. They can then use that information to target the individual online.

“The Think Before You Link app is an effective way for government staff and the public to protect themselves against those threats."