China’s theft of intellectual property (IP) – including through relentless cyberespionage campaigns – posed an “unprecedented threat” to global innovation, FBI director Christopher Wray told a meeting of Western intelligence agency leaders.
The event, part of the first Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Security Summit in Palo Alto, California, was the five leaders’ first ever joint public appearance.
The unique gathering took place “because we’re dealing with, now, another unprecedented threat, and there is no greater threat to innovation than the Chinese government,” Wray said during a discussion between the five leaders moderated by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“It is a measure of how seriously the five of us and our services take that threat that we have chosen to come together to try to highlight that. [To] raise awareness, raise resilience, and work closely with the private sector to try to build better protection for innovation,” he said.
Recent cyberespionage activity linked to China that have been highlighted by intelligence agencies include threat group Volt Typhoon’s sophisticated attacks against critical U.S. infrastructure.
The space sector is among industries intelligence agencies have warned should be alert to threats from foreign interests attempting to steal IP and other sensitive information.
In a statement, the FBI said this week’s summit was an opportunity for the Five Eyes agency heads to meet with private sector leaders to discuss strengthening private-public partnerships aimed at better protecting IP and the five countries’ collective security.
While China was far from the only state involved in espionage, it posed the greatest threat, Wray said.
“I think the challenge that they present is both scale and breadth,” he said. “Scale in terms of, for example, cyber intrusions. As part of their means to steal intellectual property, they have a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined.”
The agency leaders discussed China’s focus on gaining technology advantages in a range of emerging fields including quantum technology, biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Wray said espionage aimed at stealing AI-related research was concerning because the technology could be used to enhance cyberespionage efforts.
“You could use AI now to find vulnerabilities that can be exploited; AI to write code to exploit those vulnerabilities; AI to conduct more sophisticated spear-phishing efforts, which the Chinese – among others – use very actively,” he said.
“Since they have stolen more personal and corporate data than any other nation by orders of magnitude, if you think about what AI can do to help leverage that data: to take what’s already the largest hacking program in the world by a country mile and make it that much more effective.”
One of the other leaders attending this week’s summit, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director-general Mike Burgess, also called China’s espionage activities unprecedented.
“All nations spy, all nations seek secrets, and all nations seek strategic advantage,” he said. “But the behavior we're talking about here goes well beyond traditional espionage and the threat is that we have the Chinese government engaged in the most sustained, scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and acquisition of expertise that is unprecedented in human history.”