The public should be as alert to the “less visible” threats posed by states like China, Russia and Iran as they are about terrorism, the head of MI5 will warn today.
Ken McCallum will say the impact of hostile state activities – which include cyber attacks and fake news and have the potential to affect everyone – ranges from "frustration and inconvenience, through loss of livelihood, potentially up to loss of life".
The spy chief will say people should not be scared, but he urged them to "be switched on".
He will also shine a light on the level of foreign espionage against academics, researchers and business people, saying attempts to steal secrets are "happening at scale".
The threat he will refer to takes place in a grey zone that sits deliberately under the threshold of what would normally be considered an act of war but can be just as dangerous if ignored.
It is a topic covered in a podcast series by Sky News called Into The Grey Zone.
"We must over time build the same public awareness and resilience to state threats that we have done over the years on terrorism," the director-general of the security service will say in an annual threat update delivered at MI5’s Thames House headquarters in London.
He will confirm that foreign spies have made more than 10,000 "disguised approaches" to "regular people" in the UK, trying to manipulate them with messages sent online.
The spy chief will warn that the targets for foreign espionage are much broader than just government.
"We see the UK’s brilliant universities and researchers having their discoveries stolen or copied; we see businesses hollowed out by the loss of advantage they’ve worked painstakingly to build," he will say.
"Given half a chance, hostile actors will short-circuit years of patient British research or investment. This is happening at scale. And it affects us all. UK jobs, UK public services, UK futures."
He will continue: "To speak directly: if you are working in a high-tech business; or engaged in cutting-edge scientific research; or exporting into certain markets, you will be of interest – more interest than you might think – to foreign spies. You don’t have to be scared, but be switched on."
Looking to how the UK can push back against the threat, Mr McCallum will stress the need for all of government and all of society to be involved.
This includes increased public vigilance.
Mr McCallum’s threat update, the second since he became the head of MI5 in April 2020, will also touch on the UK’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the current terrorist threat, including that in Northern Ireland as well as right-wing extremism.
Details about the speech emerged after Ben Wallace, the defence secretary spoke about the challenge posed by China and Russia at an event in Washington.
He said Beijing’s scale, power and speed of its military development and ambition presented not just a challenge but competition and "potentially presents a threat".