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Factbox: Britain's MI5 spy chief on COVID-19, China, Russia and threats

LONDON (Reuters) - British spies are trying to defend COVID-19 vaccine work against hostile powers who are seeking to either steal or sabotage research data in the race for the global prize of a jab that can provide immunity, the head of MI5 said on Wednesday.

The following are remarks by Security Service Director General Ken McCallum.

ON COVID-19:

“Clearly, the global prize of having a first useable vaccine against this deadly virus is a large one, so we would expect that a range of other parties around the globe would be quite interested in that research.”

“I guess there are two bits we are on the lookout for: attempts either to steal unique intellectual property that’s been generated in that research or potentially to fiddle with the data,” he said.

“And then the second risk we’ve got to be alive to is the possibility that the research is still high integrity and sound, but that somebody tries to sow doubt about its integrity.”

ON CHINA:

“In the 2020s, one of the toughest challenges facing MI5 and indeed government is that the differing national security challenges presented by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other actors are growing in severity and in complexity – while terrorist threats persist at scale.”

“We also do see interference in politics: the influencing of conversations around the European Union for example. We not long ago disrupted a piece of Chinese espionage activity that looked as if it was aimed against the European Union.”

ON RUSSIA/EU REFERENDUM:

- Episodes of hack and leak: “We did see in the 2019 general election but we did not see any during the Brexit referendum.”

- Covert influencing people involved in politics: “In the case of the EU referendum, MI5 was indeed investigating at the time and with others has since investigated possible leads to individuals who potentially may have been seeking to interfere in the referendum. We did those investigations and nothing of great significance has emerged from them.

- Influencing with social media/troll farms/internet: “There is a comparatively thin evidence base that some of that appears to have taken place around the EU exit referendum, but it does not appear to be on anything like the same scale to what happened in some situations we could all name.

“MI5 was not in a situation where its radar was switched off.”

ON BEING A SPYMASTER:

“When attacks do take place, the human realities are awful. I often say to new joiners at MI5 that the hardest thing about working here is that no matter how much hard work and ingenuity we bring, it isn’t possible for us to stop every attack. Terrorist attacks are always, without exception, sickening. Whenever my phone rings late in the evening, my stomach lurches in case it is one of those awful moments.”

ON TERRORISM:

“Firstly Northern Ireland, where I grew up as an intelligence professional. Twenty-two years on from the Good Friday Agreement, great things have been achieved; Northern Ireland today does not suffer in the way that it did. Nearly everyone has moved on – but a few rejectionist terrorist groups, without meaningful community backing, persist.

“Secondly, Islamist extremist terrorism, which by volume remains our largest threat. It is still the case that tens of thousands of individuals are committed to this ideology – and we must continually scan for the smaller numbers within that large group who at any given moment might be mobilising towards attacks. Having someone “on our radar” is not the same as having them under detailed real-time scrutiny.

“And now right wing Terrorism... This threat is not, today, on the same scale as Islamist extremist terrorism. But it is growing: of the 27 late-stage terrorist attack plots in Great Britain disrupted by MI5 and CT Policing since 2017, 8 have been right wing extremist.”

ON POWERS:

“I am glad that government has announced its intention to bring legislation before Parliament on countering hostile activity. Current legislation leaves gaps; some of the most damaging activity we have to confront cannot currently be pursued through the criminal courts. That cannot be right. The detail of legislation in this delicate area will, as always, need care, and Parliament will perform that role. But the case for legislating – bringing UK defences up to the levels enjoyed by many of our friends – is compelling.”

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton

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