LinkedIn has a fake profile problem, can it fix this blot on its CV? | John Naughton

Bogus users claiming to work for Apple and Amazon are doing serious reputational damage to the online service

Once upon a time, when LinkedIn was the newest new thing, the standard response to anyone who proudly announced that they were “now on LinkedIn” was: “Oh! I didn’t know you were looking for a job.” But then, as always happens with digital stuff, what was once new became routine and, eventually, de rigueur.

I first realised this when my Cambridge college put on an event for students who aspired to become entrepreneurs and we organised a day during which each student could have a conversation with a local venture capitalist or tech investor. I sat in on some of the conversations and was astonished to find that one of the first questions the mentors asked was: “Are you on LinkedIn?” Students who were not were firmly advised to fix that, pronto.

Intrigued, I signed up and was invited to “make the most of your professional life”. I noted that by clicking on “Agree & Join” I was accepting not only the LinkedIn user agreement but also the company’s privacy policy and cookie policy, which indicated that this was just another surveillance capitalist masquerading as a service. But since I have always tried not to write about stuff that I don’t use, I clicked. I then found that I could do interesting things such as uploading my (non-existent) CV, providing details of my “career”, interests, etc, after which I sat back to see what happened.

What happened was, essentially, spam – in the form of unsolicited messages and invitations from LinkedIn. The final straw came when I began to get messages from unknown people asking me to “endorse” their skills. Interestingly, endorsement was the only option offered; in that sense, it was like Facebook, which likewise only allowed one to “like” something. Disliking was never an option. My conclusion was that this wasn’t a service that anyone could take seriously and so I quit LinkedIn and deleted my account. Or tried to, but for several years afterwards I irregularly received spam of various kinds from its servers.

Since my departure, LinkedIn has thrived. It now has 850 million users, of whom 222 million are in Europe and 57.2% are male. Nearly 60% of those users are between the ages of 25 and 34 (a very desirable demographic for employers) and it claims to have 10 million senior corporate executives on the platform. The platform has recently carried 15m open job listings. And it is now owned by Microsoft.

Impressive, n’est-ce pas? But what’s this from Brian Krebs, one of the world’s leading cybersecurity experts? “Battle with bots prompts mass purge of Amazon, Apple employee accounts on LinkedIn” was the headline on one of his recent blogposts. “On 10 October 2022,” Krebs reports, “there were 576,562 LinkedIn accounts that listed their current employer as Apple Inc. The next day, half of those profiles no longer existed. A similarly dramatic drop in the number of LinkedIn profiles claiming employment at Amazon comes as LinkedIn is struggling to combat a significant uptick in the creation of fake employee accounts that pair AI-generated profile photos with text lifted from legitimate users.”

This is interesting for several reasons. One is that these massive deletions must have been done by LinkedIn. Another is that the abruptness of the cancellations suggests that the company was unaware of the extent of the abuse until very recently. Indeed, a statement given to CNBC seemed to acknowledge that there had been a recent increase of fraud on its platform, adding that “we enforce our policies, which are very clear: fraudulent activity, including financial scams, is not allowed on LinkedIn”. Well, of course they’re not, but the FBI told CNBC that they pose a “significant threat” to the platform and its users.

Why are fake claims to have worked at Apple and Amazon significant? Simply this: the basic currency of LinkedIn is the reputational kudos that users get from their employment history. In that world, to have worked at two of the world’s most successful companies is a big deal. It’s what gives you credibility in the job market. And it’s what might make other users susceptible to, say, cryptocurrency scams.

But there’s a bigger security issue. In September, Krebs found that someone had created a large number of fake LinkedIn profiles for chief information security officer (Ciso) roles at some of the world’s biggest companies. A search on LinkedIn for the Ciso of the energy giant Chevron, for example, turned up the profile of a Victor Sites, who said he’s from Westerville, Ohio, and is a graduate of Texas A&M University. The real Ciso of Chevron, though, is Christopher Lukas of Danville, California. But when Krebs asked Google who was “the current chief information security officer of Chevron”, the LinkedIn fake was the top search result. As George Burns might have put it: if you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made. And just for the record, although there are at least 100 John Naughtons on LinkedIn at the moment, none of them is me.

What I’ve been reading

Double whammy
What Liz Truss Proved is an astute analysis by Francisco Toro on the Persuasion platform of how the Truss omnishambles in the UK and the Donald Trump catastrophe in the US have a common root cause.

Intimations of mortality
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s The Art of Dying is an unforgettable 2019 essay in the New Yorker on the prospect of his death, which occurred this month.

Generation game
Check out the Los Angeles Review of Books’ The Intimate Portrait of a Generation, a critique by Azarin Sadegh of French Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux’s magnum opus The Years.


John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
2007, not 2016, is the year the world turned upside down | John Naughton
Why the dark times we’re facing now started with a rush of rapid technological change

John Naughton

27, Nov, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Psst, want to flog a turkey like LinkedIn? Well, phone up Microsoft | John Naughton
The purchase of LinkedIn makes no business sense – its ship sailed long ago

John Naughton

19, Jun, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Facebook is not listening to the fake news furore | John Naughton
Mark Zuckerberg’s absence from Capitol Hill to face questioning about the firm’s role in the spread of bogus election ads spoke volumes about his priorities

John Naughton

05, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Job’s a good’un: how LinkedIn transformed itself into a gen Z-friendly social media contender
Once regarded as a useful but dull tool for professional networking, the service has added features such as video profiles to attract a younger audience. But will it work?

James Ball

13, Mar, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Why this woman strikes fear into the net’s big boys | John Naughton
US senator Claire McCaskill’s bid to clarify the act that gives internet firms a get out of jail card over content published on their sites has alarmed Silicon Valley

John Naughton

03, Sep, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Exclusive or not, this is one Clubhouse where I was happy to cancel my membership | John Naughton
The titular ‘social audio’ app was a would-be $1bn unicorn in the pandemic, but its recent decline has exposed it as just another Silicon Valley solution in need of a problem to solve

John Naughton

13, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
The privacy paradox: why do people keep using tech firms that abuse their data? | John Naughton
Despite privacy scandals, Facebook is more profitable than ever

John Naughton

05, May, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Theresa May thinks Facebook will police itself? Some hope
The PM has joined the social media ‘techlash’, but only new laws, not pious aspirations, will make a difference

John Naughton

11, Feb, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Why ‘weaponised’ social media isn’t Brexit’s smoking gun | John Naughton
Investigations into the political role of data analytics are welcome, but they won’t explain why people voted for Trump or leaving the EU

John Naughton

17, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Reports of social media’s influence on voters are greatly exaggerated | John Naughton
A new study reveals that traditional outlets online were the most popular for general election news

John Naughton

15, Feb, 2020 @4:00 PM