FBI and MI5 team up to warn of the risks of Chinese hackers and spies

In an unprecedented joint appearance Wednesday, the heads of U.S. and U.K. security agencies warned about China’s hacking and economic espionage, which they called “the most game-changing challenge we face.”

FBI director Christopher Wray in a speech delivered at the London headquarters of MI5, the British domestic intelligence service, said “it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security.”

He added that Beijing 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.”

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said that his agency “has already more than doubled” the effort against Chinese activity of concern in the last three years. 

“Today we’re running seven times as many investigations as we were in 2018,” he said, adding that MI5 plans “to grow as much again” to counter threats by China.

“The Chinese Communist Party is interested in our democratic, media and legal systems. Not to emulate them, sadly, but to use them for its gain,” said the MI5 head.

This joint appearance by the two agencies’ heads is seen as a show of Western solidarity and, as Wray put it, “FBI and MI5 are united in this fight.”

McCallum meanwhile said: “Today is the first time the heads of the FBI and MI5 have shared a public platform. We’re doing so to send the clearest signal we can on a massive shared challenge: China.”

‘Immense threat’

“Such a joint appearance, focused on the activities of one country, is highly unusual,” said Matthew Brazil, Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and co-author of the book “Chinese Communist Espionage’.

“It indicates that London and Washington think their business communities are insufficiently aware, or even negligent, of technology theft by Beijing’s security services,” said Brazil, who also serves as China analyst for Washington D.C.-based firm BluePath Lab.

“This is not hyperbole. The 2021 annual survey of members by the U.S.-China Business Council indicate that American firms may be worried about the bilateral relationship, but they are still making money in China,” he said.

The China analyst warned there is a systemic problem with corporations seeking short-term returns and some high-tech businesses being “more focused on being a generation ahead of competitors than losing last year’s technology to a foreign government.”

In his remarks to business leaders in Thames House, London, Christopher Wray, who spent 12 years in the private sector, called the threat by China “immense” and “a far more complex and pervasive threat to businesses than even most sophisticated company leaders realize.”

“Where we see some companies stumble is in thinking that by attending to one, or a couple, of these dangers, they’ve got the whole Chinese government danger covered—when really, China just pivots to the remaining door left unattended,” the FBI boss said.

The FBI and MI5 leaders gave a number of examples of Chinese economic espionage, with Ken McCallum warning that “privileged information is gathered on multiple channels, in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘thousand grains of sand’ strategy.”

China’s ambition

“The aim here is not to cut off from China – one fifth of humanity, with immense talent,” the MI5 head said.

“We’re not talking about Chinese people,” he said, adding that his agency is focused on the Chinese Communist Party and certain parts of the Chinese State, whose “scale of ambition is huge.”

The FBI’s Wray was more direct when he said that the Chinese government is “using intimidation and repression to shape the world to be more accommodating to China’s campaign of theft.”

“The Chinese Government sees cyber as the pathway to cheat and steal on a massive scale,” he said, adding that China’s “lavishly resourced” hacking program is bigger than that of every other major country combined. 

The Chinese government has yet to respond but a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington rejected the allegations given in the joint address.

Liu Pengyu said in an emailed statement to the Associated Press that China “firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber-attacks” and called the accusations groundless.

Christopher Wray warned about the possibility that China may try to forcibly take over Taiwan, saying “it would represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen.”

The intelligence chiefs called for more cooperation to counter imminent threats.

The U.K. has shared intelligence about cyber threats with 37 countries, according to MI5’s McCallum who said that security alliances such as the Five Eyes comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States “remain at the heart of our response.”

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