Britain’s top spymaster has issued a chilling warning that the UK’s best and brightest students are “magnetic targets” for espionage with foreign assets stealing research secrets from top institutions.
Director general of MI5, Ken McCallum, warned “hostile actors” such as Russia, Iran and China were attempting to steal research secrets from Britain’s universities “with dispiriting regularity”.
His warning came ahead of a report suggesting some universities had turned a “blind eye” to the risks posed by China while accepting money from those linked to the Communist regime.
The report by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee [ISC] was released last week.
Mr McCallum has forewarned that the “systemic competition” to get ahead in science and technology is “every bit as far-reaching” as the race to space, economic and military success during the Cold War, the Telegraph reports.
At the annual Bowman lecture at the University of Glasgow last month, McCallum said: “If your field of research is relevant to, say, advanced materials, or quantum computing, or AI, or biotech – to name but a few – your work will be of interest to people employed by states who do not share our values.”
These attacks take place in “subtle” ways, MI5’s investigations suggest, such as attractive conference invitations collaboration proposals, strategic partnerships, donations with strings, investment proposals or jointly-funded research, or even through postgraduate students themselves.
Students and lecturers were warned by Mr McCallum who said: “Precisely because our great universities are so great and rightly prize openness, they are magnetic targets for espionage and manipulation.”
He added that “security is a requirement for research integrity and a prerequisite for openness rather than set in opposition to it”.
Mr McCallum stressed: “Whether we like it or not, universities are participants in the global contest I’m describing – and need to make conscious choices about the role they’re going to play.”
When it comes to the balance between openness and security, students and academics should therefore “be alive to these issues and up for the conversation” and “make the effort – with our support – to make those difficult choices consciously”.
The warning from McCallum follows reports by Sky News last week that the head of MI6 is urging Russians appalled by the war in Ukraine to switch sides and spy for the UK.
Sir Richard Moore used a speech in a public recruitment pitch to highlight a number of individuals who have done just this over the past 18 months.
The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), said: “There are many Russians today who are silently appalled by the sight of their armed forces pulverising Ukrainian cities, expelling innocent families from their homes and kidnapping thousands of children.
“They are watching in horror as their soldiers ravage a kindred country. They know in their hearts that Putin’s case for attacking a fellow Slavic nation is fraudulent.”
Sir Richard, who rarely steps out of the shadows, made his remarks in a speech at the British embassy in the Czech capital, that was streamed live.