No real threat from TikTok says GCHQ boss, but there is real concern over China’s digital currencies and its Beidou sat nav network
China is trying to impose its values in science and technology, the head of the UK’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) has warned.
Jeremy Fleming is the director of the UK’s GCHQ listening agency and is considered to be the UK’s leading ‘cyber spy’.
In a speech on Tuesday he warned China is using its financial and scientific muscle to manipulate technologies in a manner that risks global security.
Indeed, he warned that Beijing’s actions could represent “a huge threat to us all,” and he urged the science and technology communities to act to tackle the issue.
This is not the first time that Jeremy Fleming has issued a warning about China.
In April 2021, he warned the West must act to ensure China does not dominate key technologies and gain control of the “global operating system”.
Such technologies include artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics.
He also said at the time Britain must develop “sovereign” quantum technologies, as well as cryptographic algorithms that are proof against powerful future quantum computers.
He said that while Russia is the West’s biggest immediate threat, Communist China’s potential to control technologies is a long-term challenge
Now over a year later, and Fleming at the Royal United Service Institute for its annual security lecture, made clear he still has concerns about China, but worrying about ByteDance’s TikTok is not one of them.
The spy chief was asked on Tuesday morning if he would be concerned if his children were to use TikTok, but replied he wouldn’t be concerned, although he said he would speak to his child about the way in which they think about their personal data on their device” because people needed to understand that “there is no free good here”.
In essence, Fleming is not overly concerned over TikTok, because its data is not processed in China.
But he made clear there are other technologies where China presents a clear risk, and it is using technology to secure control, both at home and aboard.
Areas of concern
Sir Jeremy argued the Chinese Communist Party was seeking to manipulate the technology that underpins people’s lives to provide opportunities for surveillance, the BBC reported.
He warned China was seeking to create “client economies and governments” by exporting technology to countries around the world, and said these countries risked “mortgaging the future” by buying in Chinese technology with “hidden costs”.
He mentioned three areas of concern.
First off is China’s answer to the GPS sat nav system.
“The Chinese version of GPS is a service called BeiDou,” he was quoted by other media outlets as saying. “It’s now present in over 120 countries around the world.”
“And we think that’s a problem because it is on the one hand providing very accurate services akin to GPS and the convenience that comes from that, but on the other side its capabilities, its data, are openly available to the Chinese state,” he warned.
“And our proposition with BeiDou and a range of other technologies is that the data is being used to control and surveil and not just support prosperity,” he said.
“And when that’s done inside a system that has none of the checks and balances that we have in the West or that we have here in the United Kingdom, I think that’s something that should concern us,” he reportedly said.
The two other areas of concern centres around new standards for the internet proposed by China which would embed greater government control.
Sir Jeremy is not the only Western intelligence official to warn about China.
In July this year, the heads of the FBI and MI5 in a London meeting warned business leaders that the Chinese government is set on stealing their technology for competitive gain.
Christopher Wray, the FBI director, stood alongside the MI5 director general, Ken McCallum, and they gave an unprecedented speech in which they reaffirmed long-standing concerns about economic espionage and hacking operations by China, as well as the Chinese government’s efforts to stifle dissent abroad.
FBI’s Wray told the audience the Chinese government was “set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market”.
McCallum meanwhile said the Chinese government and its “covert pressure across the globe” amounted to “the most game-changing challenge we face.”