A Spy Wants to Connect With You on LinkedIn
There is nothing immediately suspicious about Camille Lons’ LinkedIn page. The politics and security researcher’s profile photo is of her giving a talk. Her professional network is made up of almost 400 people; she has a detailed career history and biography. Lons has also shared a link to a recent podcast appearance—“always enjoying these conversations”—and liked posts from diplomats across the Middle East.
So when Lons got in touch with freelance journalist Anahita Saymidinova last fall, her offer of work appeared genuine. They swapped messages on LinkedIn before Lons asked to share more details of a project she was working on via email. “I just shoot an email to your inbox,” she wrote.
What Saymidinova didn’t know at the time was that the person messaging her wasn’t Lons at all. Saymidinova, who does work for Iran International, a Persian-language news outlet that has been harassed and threatened by Iranian government officials, was being targeted by a state-backed actor. The account was an imposter that researchers have since linked to Iranian hacking group Charming Kitten. (The real Camille Lons is a politics and security researcher, and a LinkedIn profile with verified contact details has existed since 2014. The real Lons did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)
When the fake account emailed Saymidinova, her suspicions were raised by a PDF that said the US State Department had provided $500,000 to fund a research project. “When I saw the budget, it was so unrealistic,” Saymidinova says.
But the attackers were persistent and asked the journalist to join a Zoom call to discuss the proposal further, as well as sending some links to review. Saymidinova, now on high alert, says she told an Iran International IT staff member about the approach and stopped replying. “It was very clear that they wanted to hack my computer,” she says. Amin Sabeti, the founder of Certfa Lab, a security organization that researches threats from Iran, analyzed the fake profile’s behavior and correspondence with Saymidinova and says the incident closely mimics other approaches on LinkedIn from Charming Kitten.
The Lons incident, which has not been previously reported, is at the murkiest end of LinkedIn’s problem with fake accounts. Sophisticated state-backed groups from Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China regularly leverage LinkedIn to connect with targets in an attempt to steal information through phishing scams or by using malware. The episode highlights LinkedIn’s ongoing battle against “inauthentic behavior,” which includes everything from irritating spam to shady espionage.
LinkedIn is an immensely valuable tool for research, networking, and finding work. But the amount of personal information people share on LinkedIn—from location and languages spoken to work history and professional connections—makes it ideal for state-sponsored espionage and weird marketing schemes. False accounts are often used to hawk cryptocurrency, trick people into reshipping schemes, and steal identities.
Sabeti, who’s been analyzing Charming Kitten profiles on LinkedIn since 2019, says the group has a clear strategy for the platform. “Before they initiate conversation, they know who they are contacting, they know the full details,” Sabeti says. In one instance, the attackers got as far as hosting a Zoom call with someone they were targeting and used static pictures of the scientist they were impersonating.
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