LONDON – Katie Jones sure seemed plugged into Washington's political scene.
The 30-something redhead boasted a job at a top think tank and a who's-who network of pundits and experts, from the centrist Brookings Institution to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. She was connected to a deputy assistant secretary of state, a senior aide to a senator and economist Paul Winfree, who is being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve.
But Jones doesn't exist, The Associated Press has determined. Instead, the persona was part of a vast army of phantom profiles lurking on the professional networking site LinkedIn. And several experts contacted by the AP said Jones' profile picture appeared to have been created by a computer program.
“I'm convinced that it's a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”
Experts who reviewed the profile's Linked-In activity say it's typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies.
“It smells a lot like some sort of state-run operation,” said Jonas Parello-Plesner, program director at the Denmark-based think tank Alliance of Democracies Foundation and was the target several years ago of an espionage operation that began over LinkedIn.
William Evanina, director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets – and accused China in particular of waging “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn.
“Instead of dispatching spies to some parking garage in the U.S to recruit a target, it's more efficient to sit behind a computer in Shanghai and send out friend requests to 30,000 targets,” he said in a written statement.
Last month, retired CIA officer Kevin Mallory was sentenced to 20 years in prison for passing details of top secret operations to Beijing, a relationship that began when a Chinese agent posing as a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn.
The Jones profile was first flagged by Keir Giles, a Russia specialist with London's Chatham House think tank. Giles was recently caught up in an entirely separate espionage operation targeting critics of the Russian antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab. So when he received an invitation from Jones on LinkedIn he was suspicious.
She claimed to have been working for years as a “Russia and Eurasia fellow” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but Giles said that, if that were true, “I ought to have heard of her.”
In a statement, LinkedIn said it routinely took action against fake accounts, yanking thousands of them in the first three months of 2019. It also said “we recommend you connect with people you know and trust, not just anyone.”