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Western Spy Chiefs Warn China Using AI to Steal Tech Secrets

‘Five Eyes’ intelligence chiefs from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand say Beijing has built an unprecedented espionage programme

Computer code is seen on a screen above a Chinese flag in this July 12, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo
Computer code is seen on a screen above a Chinese flag in this July 12, 2017 illustration photo. Photo: Reuters


Western intelligence chiefs have warned that China is using artificial intelligence to steal intellectual property and spy on rival nations.

The officials from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – known as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network – made the claim following meetings with private companies in the US innovation hub Silicon Valley.

US FBI Director Christopher Wray said the “unprecedented” joint call was meant to confront the “unprecedented threat” China poses to innovation across the world.


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From quantum technology and robotics to biotechnology and artificial intelligence, China was stealing secrets in various sectors, the officials 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,” Wray said. “Every strand of that web had become more brazen, and more dangerous.”

In response, Chinese government spokesman Liu Pengyu said the country was committed to intellectual property protection.

“We firmly oppose to the groundless allegations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly,” the spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington said in a statement to Reuters.

The US has long accused China of intellectual property theft and the issue has been a key sore point in US-China relations. But this is the first time the Five Eyes members have joined publicly to call out China on it.

“The Chinese government is engaged in the most sustained scaled and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and expertise in human history,” said Mike Burgess, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s director-general.

While China’s intention to innovate for its own national interest was “fine and entirely appropriate”, Burgess said “the behaviour we’re talking about here goes well beyond traditional espionage.”

Last month, his department busted a Chinese plot to infiltrate a prestigious Australian research institution that involved planting an academic there to steal secrets, he said.

“This sort of thing is happening every day in Australia, as it is in the countries here,” Burgess said.


China’s ‘Collective Disinformation Campaign’

The Five Eyes statement follows the group’s warning in May of a widespread Chinese spy operation it said was targeting critical infrastructure and various other sectors.

The Chinese government dismissed those allegations as a “collective disinformation campaign”.

Wray said China had “a bigger hacking programme than that of every other major nation combined” that together with Beijing’s physical spies and stealing of trade secrets from private businesses and research institutions gave the country enormous power.

“Part of what makes it so challenging is all of those tools deployed in tandem, at a scale the likes of which we’ve never seen,” Wray said.

The officials called for private industry and academia to help in countering those threats, chief among which they said were artificial intelligence tools.

“We worry about AI as an amplifier for all sorts of misconduct,” Wray said, accusing China of stealing 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 programme in the world by a country mile, and make it that much more effective – that’s what we’re worried about,” he said.


  • Reuters with additional editing by Sean O’Meara


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Sean O'Meara

Sean O'Meara is an Editor at Asia Financial. He has been a newspaper man for more than 30 years, working at local, regional and national titles in the UK as a writer, sub-editor, page designer and print editor. A football, cricket and rugby fan, he has a particular interest in sports finance.


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