MI5 director-general Ken McCallum: ‘The national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity’
MI5 director-general Ken McCallum: ‘The national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity’ © UK Government/Reuters

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 via a virtual briefing for the first time since taking up his 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”, UK spies have also detected attempts by Chinese counterparts to influence politics. One operation, to gain intelligence on the EU, was foiled last month by MI5 and 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.”

His comments come after UK spy agencies have been criticised for failing to take the threat from states such as Russia seriously enough. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee this summer accused MI5 and others of “taking their eye off the ball” and failing to scrutinise Moscow’s attempts to influence UK elections.

The new director-general said MI5 had investigated the possibility of Russia interfering in the Brexit referendum and not found anything of “significance”. However, he acknowledged there were “questions to be posed” about whether spy agencies had dedicated enough resources to the threat from Moscow in the early 2000s.

Russian activity was posing the “most aggravation” to the UK in the short term, he added, but China would be “shaping our world across the next decade”.

“You might think in terms of the Russian intelligence services providing bursts of bad weather, while China is changing the climate,” he said.

Mr McCallum spent nearly 25 years in the intelligence services before taking over as head of MI5, and spent the majority of his career combating both Islamist-related and Northern Ireland-related terrorism. Over the past four years the spy agency has thwarted 27 terror plots, of which eight involved rightwing extremists — a threat he described as a “rising trend”.

But he said the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted spies’ priorities, not least because “fewer crowds mean terrorists look at different targets”. In recent months, MI5 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 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.

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.

MI5 has also repurposed some of its work on bioterrorism to help the government’s coronavirus response, by reviewing whether “research originally done on toxic chemicals [can] help understand how Covid in droplets might disperse in certain environments,” the director-general said.

Get alerts on Security Service UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article