The government has launched an app designed to help people spot fake profiles being used by foreign spies.
MI5 said 10,000 UK nationals have been targeted by fake profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook over the past year.
The Think Before You Link app from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure is aimed at helping people to spot the characteristics used by malicious approaches over social media.
Steve Barclay, the lead government minister for cyber security, said fake profiles were being created on an “industrial scale”.
The government released case studies in which current and former civil servants were approached by spies seeking sensitive information.
In one case a former civil servant with security clearances was first approached over a professional networking site, then travelled to a foreign country for meetings.
Over a six-month period the individual was provided with a “covert communications system” and asked to provide sensitive government information.
In another case a serving civil servant with security clearance was approached by someone pretending to be from a think tank.
The fake profile appeared to have a shared contact, so the person assumed it was legitimate, in spite of doubts. A series of messages led to an offer of a business consultancy.
Those working in high-tech businesses and academia are also common targets, MI5 said.
“The Think Before You Link app supports those who may be receiving disguised approaches, helping them to conduct their own digital due diligence before accepting unknown contacts online,” said Ken McCallum, director general of MI5.
Designed with help from behavioural scientists, the app provides a series of questions that help assess whether a profile might be fake.
It includes a reverse image search to help spot profile images that may have been reused elsewhere.
If a profile is assessed as medium- or high-risk the user will be encouraged to report it.
“The online threat via social media is increasing, with fake profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook being created on an industrial scale,” said Barclay.
“Many of these profiles are established as an elaborate ruse for eliciting details from either officials or members of the public who may have access to information relating to our national security.
“It is therefore crucial that we do all we can to protect ourselves and our information, ensuring those who we connect with online are who they say they are.”
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