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UK universities on red alert over Chinese spies after bleak MI5 warning

Dozens of UK universities have signed up to a new security scheme to protect staff and research from Chinese spies.

A number of institutions have joined the Trusted Research programme in an attempt to reduce the amount of valuable work being lost to rival states.

The development follows a stark warning issued by the Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum, who spoke of the growing threat from China, while also revealing how more than 20,000 Britons had been targeted online in attempts to steal sensitive information.

McCallum was speaking for the first time at the historic Five Eyes security alliance, alongside heads of intelligence services from Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia, reports the Sunday Mail.

He said: “The UK is seeing a sharp rise in aggressive attempts by other states to steal competitive advantage.”

He added: “It’s the same across all five of our countries. The stakes are now incredibly high on emerging technologies.”

McCallum alluded to “artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology” as examples of key sectors being targeted, adding that countries who “lead the way” in these areas “will have the power to shape all our futures”.

The Trusted Research programme will aim to protect university staff and their work through the implementation of thorough security checks on international academics working with UK ones. It will also give advice on how to protect data from thieves.

McCallum previously warned that universities were “magnets” for espionage, adding: “states who do not share our values” will be interested in work to do with “advanced materials, quantum computing, AI or biotech”, among others.

He described how the espionage was often “subtle”, with tactics including conference invitations, collaboration proposals, donations with strings attached, jointly-funded research, or simply through postgraduate students.

The comments may spark concern, given many UK universities’ financial reliance on Chinese students. Universities can command a much higher tuition fee from foreign students, compared to British ones, and Chinese students are thought to still be the largest nationality of those.



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