Security

Infosec 2017: Former MI5 Boss Highlights Changing World Of UK Intelligence

Sam Pudwell joined Silicon UK as a reporter in December 2016. As well as being the resident Cloud aficionado, he covers areas such as cyber security, government IT and sports technology, with the aim of going to as many events as possible.

Just like many other industries, the intelligence world has had to change with the times

The world of intelligence has transformed dramatically in recent times, with cyber tools employed by agencies around the world to protect citizens from threats.

To illustrate this change, Dame Stella Rimington, former director general for MI5, used her keynote speech at InfoSecurity 2017, to deliver some fascinating insights into how agencies in the UK have changed with the times.

Rimington was MI5 boss during the nineties, a time when the agency first embarked on a new mission of transparency which has since seen the introduction of things like open recruitment and a public website.

From a technological perspective, many things have changed in the world of cyber security and intelligence operations since Rimington first joined the organisation in the late 1960s.

Indeed, she described it as “a story of constant change and constant growth,” with calls for change only increasing in the wake of recent horrors to have struck the UK and other countries around the world.

Surveillance

Specifically, she touched on three areas of operations that have been most affected by technological advancements: The interception of communications, surveillance and eavesdropping.

“When I joined the service, communications were by letter or by landline telephone and that was the interception of communications,” she said. “You had to deal with those two things. Now of course, communications are incredibly complex and they’re changing all the time.

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“The interception of communications and providing our services with the legal base they need to continue to intercept communications as they change rapidly and encryption increases are all issues that are facing the current intelligence services and government ministers.”

This issue of encryption has of course been an extremely prominently one in the wake of the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks.

Home secretary Amber Rudd slammed messaging service WhatsApp for its “completely unacceptable” level of encryption following the Westminster attack, while Prime Minister Theresa May has since stoked the fire even further by openly criticising technology companies and calling for increased Internet regulations to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online”.

Moving on to surveillance, Rimington explained how it used to primarily consist of identifying targets and physically following them around on the street.

This job has recently become much more dangerous as targets are now more commonly terrorists and has developed to involve “all kinds of high-tech gadgets, with drones, in aeroplanes and all sorts of things. Surveillance still exists, but it’s a much more complicated thing.”

And finally we have eavesdropping, which involves trying to “listen in to the places where people assemble to do their planning.” While the process still involves the planting of microphones, advancements in technology have made it a much easier job.

“In those days the problem was the size,” Rimington explained. “If you wanted long term eavesdropping of a place then you needed a huge array of batteries. Now, of course eavesdropping still goes on, but it’s a much more subtle and sophisticated thing.”

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