China’s effort to recruit current and former top U.S. national security officials using social media accounts has reached such a fever pitch that the FBI has made a 30-minute movie based on a real-life incident to warn Americans about falling prey to such tactics.
The FBI and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center on Wednesday released a movie titled The Nevernight Connection, named after Shanghai, which is known as the Never-Night city for its ceaseless 24-hour life.
The movie portrays a fictional Daniel Landry, a retired U.S. Navy official who worked for the service’s undersea warfare office managing its undersea vehicle program, and is sought out on a professional social media platform that sounds like LinkedIn.
A man called Thomas Wu, claiming to work for Southeast Asia Maritime Institute, wants Landry to write a white paper on how unmanned undersea vehicles could help with exploiting undersea resources for commercial purposes. In exchange Landry gets offered $1,500 and an all-expenses paid trip to Shanghai to present the paper.
Wu asks Landry to ask his former Navy colleagues for the latest information and advances while preparing the paper. Only after Landry finishes his speech and is given an envelope of crisp $100 bills does he see a news headline of another American official who is arrested for helping China gain access to sensitive U.S. military information. But it’s too late by then and Landry gets arrested on his return to the United States on similar charges and gets sent to prison for 20 years.
The movie was made available to U.S. intelligence agencies last month to help warn employees to be careful about falling prey to job offers online and clicking on links in emails from unknown senders, the FBI said. The agency said it was making the movie public to warn all Americans, including executives at top U.S. technology companies of the techniques used by China.
The film is based on the true-life events of a former CIA official Kevin Mallory who found himself in a similar situation and was sentenced to 20 years in May 2019, the FBI said.
“Mallory was first approached by Chinese intelligence via a fake profile on a professional networking site,” the FBI and counterintelligence center said in a statement.
A fluent Mandarin speaker, Mallory worked for the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and the U.S. Army, according to the FBI. After leaving the CIA in 2012, Mallory launched a consulting business and was racking up debt when he was approached by Chinese intelligence officers on a professional networking site, offering him opportunities while posing as corporate headhunters, the FBI said.
“Mallory travelled twice to China, where he was met by a Chinese intelligence officer and paid $25,000,” the FBI said. “On his second trip, he was provided with a covert communications device to transmit classified information to Chinese intelligence. A subsequent search of Mallory’s covert communications device by the FBI revealed classified document remnants.”
The FBI has mounted a large-scale effort called the China Initiative to counter sophisticated techniques by Chinese intelligence services not only to recruit Americans but also to steal intellectual property from American companies. In the past few years the agency has brought multiple charges against hackers and spies, and arrested some of them.
FBI Director Christopher Wray and other officials have said that China’s goal of becoming the world’s top technology provider is fueling Beijing’s aggressive techniques to get as much information on technologies from around the world as possible.
“Social media deception continues to be a popular technique for foreign intelligence services and other hostile actors to glean valuable information from unsuspecting Americans,” NCSC Director William Evanina said in a statement. “Through this movie and other resources, we hope to raise awareness among Americans so they can guard against online approaches from unknown parties that could put them, their organization, and even national security at risk.”