In a recent announcement, the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, revealed that approximately 20,000 Britons have been approached by Chinese state actors on LinkedIn in an attempt to steal industrial and technological secrets. McCallum stated that industrial espionage is occurring on a significant scale and estimated that around 10,000 UK businesses are at risk, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and synthetic biology, where China is seeking an advantage. He emphasized that this covert activity is not limited to government or military secrets, but also targets promising startups, innovative companies, academic research, and individuals who may not consider themselves relevant to national security.
McCallum highlighted that one common method employed by Chinese actors is posing as recruitment consultants on LinkedIn to gather information. He noted that there have been over 20,000 cases of initial online approaches by Chinese actors, compared to 10,000 cases two and a half years ago. Concerns about Chinese industrial espionage have escalated over the past decade, particularly in the United States, where the intelligence and military communities view China as the primary threat to innovation. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, described the Chinese Communist Party as the “number one threat to innovation” and accused Beijing of making economic espionage a central component of its national strategy.
While McCallum did not provide a specific figure for MI5’s caseload, the agency has previously stated that its China caseload has increased seven-fold in the past four years. MI5 recently disclosed that it is aware of 20 instances where Chinese companies are considering or pursuing the use of “obfuscated investment” and “imaginative company structures” to bypass regulations and gain access to technology developed by British companies and universities. The agency also indicated that it is aware of at least two Chinese companies attempting to exploit legal loopholes to access sensitive technology undetected and another Chinese company that acquired stolen research data from a top UK university.
Despite these activities, no one has been prosecuted for spying for Beijing in the UK. However, McCallum expressed optimism that the new National Security Act, which updated espionage definitions, would lead to Chinese agents being tried in British courts, similar to how terrorists are prosecuted. He expects that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts will increasingly address state threats in their work, just as they routinely do with counter-terrorism efforts.
The heads of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US) were scheduled to meet with representatives from the technology sector to convey their warnings. This meeting followed their joint appearance at a roundtable event chaired by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier in the day.