LONDON – Russia, China and other foreign states are targeting the private communications of British politicians and business leaders, the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service warned on Wednesday, highlighting the importance of safeguarding confidential information.
The agency – known as MI5 – is helping advise people in public life on how to keep their email and mobile phone communications secure, Director General Ken McCallum told Bloomberg on Wednesday, following a speech at the agency’s headquarters in London.
“We can’t not be interested in attempts to access people working within our political system, whether they are elected or in a supporting role,” he said. “Politicians have particular responsibilities to safeguard the information that they hold, and most politicians take those responsibilities seriously in my experience.
“But the same point applies if you are a captain of industry, or you are running a funky start-up with some really exciting new technology, or you are doing some cutting edge research in one of our universities.”
Mr McCallum’s remarks highlight the broad nature of the threat posed to Britain by foreign nations. China’s intelligence services in particular have made approaches to local counsellors, potential future parliamentary candidates and academics, he said.
Methods include using the LinkedIn social network, or invitations to attend all-expenses-paid trips abroad that should seem “too good to be true”, according to the spy chief.
China earlier this year denied interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations when Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle warned it had been engaged in political interference activities in the Briish Parliament.
But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – in office for just three weeks – has sought to soften Britain’s tone when dealing with the Asian nation, backing away from describing it as a “systemic threat” and instead calling it a “systemic challenge” to Britain.
Mr Sunak had been due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 talks in Bali, Indonesia, but the meeting was cancelled because of discussions about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
MI5 is making “the biggest shift in a generation” in terms of how it deals with threats from Russia, China and Iran, McCallum said in his annual update on the security challenges facing Britain.
Countering terrorism remains “the first thing the public expects of MI5”, he said, revealing the service had foiled eight late-stage attack plots since last summer.
European nations had “struck the most significant strategic blow against the Russian intelligence services in recent history” by expelling more than 600 Russian diplomats – including over 400 spies – this year, he said.
Britain has also refused over 100 Russian diplomatic visa applications on national security grounds since it removed 23 Russian spies posing as diplomats.
Britain also needs a “system-wide response” to increasing evidence of Chinese efforts to intimidate its diaspora in Britain, he warned, accusing the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department of pressurising dissidents.
“To intimidate and harass UK nationals or those who have made the UK their home cannot be tolerated,” he said.
Meanwhile, Iran’s “aggressive” intelligence services had “ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals,” Mr McCallum said, revealing there have been “at least 10 such potential threats since January alone”.
In Britain, some three-quarters of domestic terror plots came from Islamist groups, with the remainder from extreme right-wing terrorists, he said.
“We are seeing growing numbers of right-wing extremist influencers, operating globally, fuel grievances and amplify conspiracy theories,” he said. “This problems feels like it will endure.”
The youngest person involved in possible right-wing terrorism was just 13 years old, he added. BLOOMBERG