UK’s MI5 chief warns public to beware of foreign spies
The British public now needs to be as alert to covert infiltration by hostile countries as it is to terror threats, the head of the MI5 intelligence agency said.
Ken McCallum warned that it is wrong to believe that other nations represent only a threat to the UK government, organisations or high-profile individuals.
Over the past five years, “we have seen over 10,000 disguised approaches from foreign spies to regular people in the UK, seeking to manipulate them”, he said in an annual speech on Wednesday.
“We see the UK’s brilliant universities and researchers having their discoveries stolen or copied; we see businesses 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.”
The chief of the domestic intelligence agency said that for Britons working in hi-tech businesses, cutting-edge research or those exporting to certain markets, “you will be of more interest – more interest than you might think – to foreign spies”.
He added: “You don’t have to be scared; but be switched on”.
McCallum did not identify any of the countries concerned, but Western intelligence agencies have warned about the growing threat posed by China and Russia in both traditional espionage and in cyber-hacking.
Beijing and Moscow say the West is gripped with a paranoia about plots. Both Russia and China deny they meddle abroad, seek to steal technology, carry out cyberattacks or sow discord.
“Some hostile actors are prepared to come to the UK to kill,” McCallum said.
Since a 2018 nerve agent attack in England targeting former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, MI5 has disrupted hostile power activity that might have resulted in an attempted killing, he said, though he declined to give details.
In May, McCallum said extremism on social media was as much a national security risk now as terrorism from Afghanistan or Syria, slamming Facebook for rolling out end-to-end encryption across all its platforms.
Far-right extremism by white supremacists is “sadly here to stay”, he said Wednesday, adding that his agents have been investigating teenagers as young as 13.
Of 29 “late-stage” attack plots disrupted over the past four years, 10 were by extreme right-wingers, the MI5 boss said.
MI5 began as a counter-intelligence service in 1909, first focusing on the threat from Germany and then, after World War II, focusing on the Cold War threat posed by the Soviet Union’s agents.
The UK’s espionage network also includes the Secret Intelligence Service – better known as MI6 and home of fictional superspy James Bond – as well as cybersecurity agency GCHQ.