MI5 boss warns of ‘aggressive attempts’ by hostile states like China to steal secrets

UK intelligence boss will appear alongside ‘Five Eyes’ spy chiefs from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at Silicon Valley summit

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 17 October 2023 15:00 BST
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Rishi Sunak vows to ‘defend our democracy and security’ amid China spy accusations

The head of MI5 has warned of a “sharp rise in aggressive attempts” by hostile states like China to steal Britain’s technology secrets.

Ken McCallum will make his first joint public appearance with counterparts from the Five Eyes intelligence services amid warnings about growing threats to the west.

The intelligence boss will appear alongside fellow spy chiefs from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand at an event hosted by the FBI later on Tuesday.

“The UK is seeing a sharp rise in aggressive attempts by other states to steal competitive advantage,” said Mr McCallum. “It’s the same across all five of our countries.”

“The stakes are now incredibly high on emerging technologies; states which lead the way in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology will have the power to shape all our futures.”

The MI5 chief added: “We all need to be aware, and respond, before it’s too late.”

Mr McCallum has previously warned that China is the biggest long-term threat to Britain’s interests, and the country should prepare to face Russian aggression for years.

The MI5 chief also warned British researchers earlier this year they are key targets for hostile actors, who are stealing British research with “dispiriting regularity”.

He said: “If your field of research is relevant to advanced materials or quantum computing or AI or biotech, to name but a few, your work will be of interest to people employed by states who do not share our values.”

MI5 director General Ken McCallum is in US for intelligence meeting

Rishi Sunak’s government warned that China is actively trying to “headhunt” top British officials in government, business and the military

Beijing has attempted to recruit nationals in key positions with “sensitive knowledge and experience”, the government acknowledged in response to a damning report by MPs.

It follows the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for the superpower. The man in his 20s – who has insisted that he is innocent – reportedly met a Cabinet Office minister to discuss the Procurement Bill.

All five intelligence bosses are set to take part in a fireside chat with the former Bush-era US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday to discuss threats to businesses across their home nations.

They already met at the start of the first Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Security Summit in Silicon Valley, which will also be attended by business chiefs and academics.

FBI director Christopher Wray said the intelligence agencies would “continue to protect emerging technologies both from those who would steal them and those who would exploit them for malicious purposes”.

David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said “the threats to innovation are increasing in both scale and complexity”.

Meanwhile, No 10 has said it is “confident” that key players will attend its artificial intelligence (AI) summit amid reports German chancellor Olaf Scholz may snub the summit.

Mr Sunak hopes the summit on AI safety will cement the UK’s status as a world player in the technology. But it is not yet clear which international leaders will attend the gathering at Bletchley Park in November.

Britain has invited China to its summit, but it is not yet clear if officials will be asked to take part in some or all of the event. Foreign secretary James Cleverly has previously said the risks of the technology could not be contained if one of its leading players was absent.

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