Britain’s domestic security service MI5 is “looking to do more” to counter the espionage risk from China as the threat posed by states hostile to the UK increases, its new director-general Ken McCallum revealed on Wednesday.
Mr McCallum, who was speaking publicly for the first time since taking up the post in April, said security agencies were battling competing priorities. “The national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity,” he said. “We face a nasty mix — terrorism isn’t going away, and state-backed hostile activity is on the rise.”
He said that while Beijing’s espionage efforts typically take the form of “hacking commercially sensitive information or commercially sensitive data, and intellectual property”, MI5 has also detected attempts by Chinese spies to influence politics, including an operation to gain intelligence on the EU which was foiled last month by MI5 together with Belgian security services.
“The UK wants to co-operate with China on the big global issues like climate change, while at the same time being robust in confronting covert hostile activity when we come across it,” he said. “[MI5 is] looking to do more against Chinese activity, carefully prioritised.”
Mr McCallum spent nearly 25 years as a spy before taking over as head of MI5, and spent the majority of his career combating both Islamist-related and Northern Ireland-related terrorism. But he said the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted priorities for spy agencies, and that in recent months his team has been working to help defend UK vaccine research organisations against intrusion by foreign spies.
The National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of GCHQ, has already accused Russia-backed hackers of trying to penetrate UK institutions linked to vaccine research, while US security agencies have attributed hacking attempts against American vaccine developers to China.
“Clearly, the global prize of having a first usable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one, so we would expect that a range of other parties around the globe would be quite interested in that research,” Mr McCallum said. He added that security agencies are on the lookout for attempts to steal unique intellectual property, fiddle with research data and spread disinformation about the integrity of the findings.