The head of MI5 Ken McCallum has said that more than 20,000 people in the UK have now been approached covertly online by Chinese spies.
Ken McCallum was speaking to the BBC at an unprecedented public appearance of the security chiefs of the Five Eyes alliance in California – the heads of US, UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand security agencies.
They appeared together for the first time to warn of commercials secrets being obtained by China.
The venue for the first public meeting, Stanford University, California was chosen because it lied in the heart of Silicon Valley.
In both public statements and a closed session with entrepreneurs and investors, security chiefs warned that cutting-edge research was being stolen
In the past, MI5 focused on protecting government secrets from foreign spies but now the fear is that innovation is often stolen from small companies, start-ups and researchers who may not previously have worried about security.
“If you’re working today at the cutting edge of technology then geopolitics is interested in you, even if you’re not interested in geopolitics,” Mr McCallum said.
MI5 is trying to warn tens of thousands of UK companies who are potentially at risk, and doing so required the security service to go public in a way it has not done before.
Mr McCallum said that MI5 had now seen suspected Chinese agents approach over 20,000 people in the UK over professional networking sites like LinkedIn, in order to try to cultivate them to provide sensitive information, double the previously reported figure.
He warned that consequences of research being stolen in cutting-edge fields like Artificial Intelligence were not just for a company’s profitability but also for the future of western countries, adding that AI, in addition to the data collected by China, could give room to interfere with politics in a far more effective way.
FBI Director Chris Wray told journalists that “China has made economic espionage and stealing others’ work and ideas a central component of its national strategy and that espionage is at the expense of innovators in all five of our countries”
The head of Australia’s security service Mike Burgess at the public event featuring the five spy chiefs, noted that “All nations spy… but the behaviour we are talking about here goes well beyond traditional espionage.”
He argued the scale was unprecedented in human history and needed to be called out.
The security chiefs argued that decoupling western economies from China would be unrealistic and damaging, hence, the priority was to identify and protect sensitive areas.
Their appearance was timed with the launch of new guidance to reach those who would previously not have had contact with security services.
The meeting took place in the shadow of events in the Middle East and concerns of increased radicalization and threats domestically.