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October 18, 2023

UK and Five Eyes allies issue warning on Chinese ‘theft’ of intellectual property

Nation-state backed hackers pose an "unprecedented" threat to IP, security chiefs have warned

By Matthew Gooding

The UK and its allies in the Five Eyes security alliance have warned of the threat posed by China and other nation-state-backed hackers to intellectual property, with one security chief describing China’s cyber operations as the “most sustained scaled and sophisticated” attempt to steal IP in history.

State-backed hackers from China pose a growing threat to IP in the UK and other western countries. (Photo by rongyiquan/Shutterstock)

Mike Burgess, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, made his comments at a joint event in the US. It is thought to be the first time the group has jointly called out China over its cyber espionage activities.

Five Eyes warning on China IP theft

Heads of cybersecurity from the Five Eyes nations – the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – shared the stage at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, yesterday to launch five principles businesses should embrace to protect themselves against threats to their IP.

While the guidance is aimed at all nation-state-backed hackers, it was clearly designed with Chinese cybercriminals in mind. Speaking to reporters, Burgess said this was because of the size of the threat posed by Beijing’s hacking army.

“The Chinese government is engaged in the most sustained scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history,” Burgess said, adding that its efforts go “well beyond traditional espionage”.

Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, also weighed in, describing the threat posed by China as “unprecedented”. He said: “China has long targeted businesses with a web of techniques all at once: cyber intrusions, human intelligence operations, seemingly innocuous corporate investments and transactions.

“Every strand of that web had become more brazen, and more dangerous.”

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As reported by Tech Monitor, in May the Five Eyes nations issued a joint warning about Chinese government-backed hackers targeting critical infrastructure in the US and around the world.

Burgess and Wray were speaking after meeting with businesses in Silicon Valley to discuss the impact of IP theft on the industry.

Tech Monitor has contacted the Chinese government for comment, but in a statement to Reuters, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington DC said: “We firmly oppose.. the groundless allegations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly.”

What tech leaders can do to protect their IP

The UK is tackling IP theft with a new organisation, the National Protective Security Agency (NSPA), which was set up earlier this year and works with other government agencies to provide advice and training to any organisations that hold key intellectual property or run critical national infrastructure.

In addition to the five principles, the UK has published new ‘secure innovation’ guidance, that explains practical steps that small and medium-sized businesses and other organisations can take to bolster their protections against the threats posed by other states as well as from criminals and even competitors. 

Targeted at start-ups and spinouts developing cutting-edge technology, the advice includes a guide to help those without extensive security expertise take the first steps to keep their innovations safe. It offers information on proportionate physical, cyber and personnel security arrangements, and covers areas including investments, supply chains, travel, IT networks and cloud computing. 

All of the Five Eyes countries have seen a “sharp rise in aggressive attempts by other states to steal competitive advantage”, MI5 director general Ken McCallum said.

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

Read more: How AI will extend the scale and sophistication of cybercrime

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