MI5 boss says Chinese espionage in UK on ‘epic’ scale with 20,000 people approached by spies

Chinese spies have attempted to make contact with over 20,000 people in the United Kingdom through online channels, the director of MI5 has claimed.

“We have seen a sustained campaign on a pretty epic scale,” Ken McCallum told the BBC during an unprecedented public appearance on Tuesday alongside his counterparts from the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

The British intelligence chief spoke at the event in California, hosted by the FBI, alongside fellow spy chiefs from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

During his remarks to reporters, Mr McCallum also warned that the conflict rapidly unfolding in Gaza could inspire terror attacks in the UK.

“There clearly is the possibility that profound events in the Middle East will either generate more volume of UK threat and/or changes in shape in terms of what is being targeted, in terms of how people are taking inspiration,” he said.

“Terrorists can draw inspiration not just from things they see happening inside the UK but things they see happening in the Middle East or on the continent or elsewhere. So we would be silly not to be paying very close attention, and we are.”

The espionage threat of China, however, remained the focus for several members of the panel, with FBI director Chris Wray saying: “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.

“That threat has only gotten more dangerous and more insidious in recent years.”

Public appearances by heads of the UK’s intelligence agencies are rare. But MI5 is making an unprecedented effort to alert tens of thousands of potentially vulnerable UK companies, necessitating a level of public disclosure the security service has not undertaken previously.

“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,” Mr McCallum warned.

“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.”

“These technologies are at a historic moment where they are beginning to change our world in some pretty fundamental ways,” Mr McCallum told the BBC. “And we know that authoritarian states are laser-focused on the opportunities that these technologies may present for them.”

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.”