The chief of MI5 is to warn that the activities of China, Russia and other hostile states could have as large an impact on the public as terrorism, marking a significant shift in emphasis from the UK’s domestic spy agency.
Giving his annual threat update on Wednesday, Ken McCallum is expected to say that the British public will have to “build the same public awareness and resilience to state threats that we have done over the years on terrorism”.
But while the threat from Russia, as demonstrated by the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, is familiar to the British public – the spy chief will argue that threats that typically come from China are not.
McCallum will say that universities and researchers risk “having their discoveries stolen or copied” if they are not vigilant and that businesses could be “hollowed out by the loss of advantage they’ve worked painstakingly to build”.
“Given half a chance, hostile actors will short-circuit years of patient British research or investment. This is happening at scale. And it affects us all. UK jobs, UK public services, UK futures,” McCallum will say.
Threats from hostile states have risen up the security agenda as the threat from Islamist terrorism has receded significantly since the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the final territorial defeat of the organisation in 2019.
A little over a decade ago, in 2008/9, MI5 allocated only 3% of its effort in targeting hostile state activity, although it has shifted significantly since, according to parliament’s intelligence and security committee as both Russia and China have become dramatically more assertive.
Earlier in the spring MI5 warned that 10,000 Britons had been targeted over the last five years on LinkedIn by people masquerading under fake profiles. Such attempts to steal intellectual property frequently come from China, although McCallum is careful not to name the country directly in his pre-released remarks for diplomatic reasons.
A common approach is to use an account that appears to belong to a young woman – often with an anglicised first name and an east Asian surname – who poses as a recruiter, seeking to extract information from researchers or experts under the guise of offering a job.
“To speak directly: if you are working in a hi-tech business; or engaged in cutting-edge scientific research; or exporting into certain markets, you will be of interest – more interest than you might think – to foreign spies. You don’t have to be scared; but be switched on,” the spy chief will say.
MI5 has been criticised for not focusing enough on China in the past and there remains considerable wariness on the part of Boris Johnson, the prime minister, about being too openly critical because of the economic advantages of working with Beijing.
The recent Integrated Review of UK defence and foreign policy concluded that China “presents challenges” because it is “an authoritarian state, with different values to ours” – although some on the Conservative backbenchers want the country more clearly defined as an enemy state.
However, it also emerged that the UK quietly expelled three Chinese spies last year, who it said were posing as journalists and when McCallum was appointed he promised to sharpen the agency’s focus on Beijing.