The heads of Western intelligence agencies have come together in a very rare move to warn about the threat posed by China.

The warning from the heads of intelligence agencies from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (collectively known as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network) came after they held meetings with private companies in Silicon Valley.

FBI Director Christopher Wray had invited and hosted the intelligence heads from the Anglo Saxon nations, which included MI5 Director General Ken McCallum; Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault; Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess,; and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security and Andrew Hampton.

Five Eyes Intelligence Network.
From left to right: Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security and Chief Executive Andrew Hampton, and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum pose for a group photo during the Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, California, on October 16, 2023.
Image credit FBI

China warning

Earlier this year in May the Five Eyes intelligence agencies, as well as tech giant Microsoft, had warned that critical infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere was being spied upon by state sponsored Chinese hackers.

Then before that in July 2022, the heads of the FBI and MI5 in London held a remarkable public meeting in which they warned business leaders that the Chinese government was set on stealing their technology for competitive gain.

MI5 director general, Ken McCallum, and Christopher Wray, the FBI director

Now in their first-ever joint public appearance, leaders of the Five Eyes intelligence network gathered together and launched the first Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Security Summit in Palo Alto, California.

The summit is bringing together business leaders and entrepreneurs, government officials, and academics to discuss threats to innovation, coming trends in the use and potential exploitation of emerging tech, and means to work together to advance both economic security and public safety.

“Emerging technologies are essential to our economic and national security, and America’s role as a leading economic power, but they also present new and evolving threats,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“The FBI is committed to working with our Five Eyes and industry partners to continue to protect emerging technologies both from those who would steal them and those who would exploit them for malicious purposes.”

“The UK is seeing a sharp rise in aggressive attempts by other states to steal competitive advantage,” added MI5 Director General Ken 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.”

“We all need to be aware, and respond, before it’s too late,” said McCallum.

China threat

And then they specifically addressed the threat posed by China, Reuters reported.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the “unprecedented” joint call was meant to confront the “unprecedented threat” China poses to innovation across the world.

They reportedly said that from quantum technology and robotics to biotechnology and artificial intelligence, China was stealing secrets in various sectors.

“China has long targeted businesses with a web of techniques all at once: cyber intrusions, human intelligence operations, seemingly innocuous corporate investments and transactions,” FBI director Wray was quoted as saying. “Every strand of that web had become more brazen, and more dangerous.”

The US has long accused China of intellectual property theft, but this is the first time that the Five Eyes members have joined publicly to call out China.

Wray said China had “a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined” that together with Beijing’s physical spies and stealing of trade secrets from private businesses and research institutions gave the country enormous power.

“Part of what makes it so challenging is all of those tools deployed in tandem, at a scale the likes of which we’ve never seen,” Wray was quoted as saying.

The officials called for private industry and academia to help in countering those threats, chief among which they said were artificial intelligence tools.

AI issue

“We worry about AI as an amplifier for all sorts of misconduct,” Wray reportedly said, accusing China of stealing more personal and corporate data than any other nation by orders of magnitude.

“If you think about what AI can do to help leverage that data to take what’s already the largest hacking program in the world by a country mile, and make it that much more effective – that’s what we’re worried about,” he reportedly said.

“The Chinese government is engaged in the most sustained scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history,” Mike Burgess, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director-general was quoted as saying.

While China’s intention to innovate for its own national interest was “fine and entirely appropriate”, Burgess said “the behaviour we’re talking about here goes well beyond traditional espionage.”

In response, Chinese government spokesman Liu Pengyu told Reuters the country was committed to intellectual property protection.

“We firmly oppose to the groundless allegations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly,” the spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington said in a statement to Reuters.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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