The head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (otherwise known as MI6) has said the intelligence agency cannot enhance its capabilities solely “inhouse” anymore, and must open up more.

This includes partnering with technology firms to help MI6 deal with increasingly tech-savvy rivals such as China and Russia, as digital threats continue “growing exponentially.”

During his first public speech as chief of SIS (or ‘C’ as the position is known), Richard Moore said that the UK’s adversaries investing heavily in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology.

Changing world

Richard Moore took over leading MI6 in October 2020, and he used his first public speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London on Tuesday, to call for greater co-operation with the tech sector.

Moore began the speech by noting the changed world we now live in, with both threats from “nation states and non-state actors, such as terrorists and organised criminals,” who are competing “across the domains of the virtual and the physical in a world of, at times, bewildering complexity.”

Moore signalled the UK’s ‘big four’ priorities within the intelligence community, namely Russia, China and Iran, and finally international terrorism.

Moore acknowledged how technology is impacting everyday life, and he noted the worsening cybersecurity landscape.

“Advances in quantum engineering and engineered biology will change entire industries,” he noted. “The huge volumes of data now available across the globe, combined with ever increasing computer power and advances in data science, will mean the integration of artificial intelligence, AI, into almost every aspect of our daily lives.”

As head of MI6, Moore said he was not up to him to discuss the benefits these technologies can bring, but rather focus on the threats they pose.

“MI6 deals with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be,” said Moore. “And the ‘digital attack surface’ that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us is growing exponentially.”

Moore noted that the world may experience more technological progress in the next ten years than in the last century, with a disruptive impact equal to the industrial revolution.

“My mission as Chief is to ensure the successful transformation and modernisation of our organisation: extending MI6’s secret human relationships to reflect the changing nature of power and influence in the world; investing in the skills a global intelligence agency needs in the digital age; and meeting the technological challenge head on by opening up – to an unprecedented degree – to partners who can help us master the technologies we need for our operations, and to enable us to innovate faster than our adversaries,” said Moore.

China, Russia, Iran threat

Moore took time to address the threats posed by China, Russia and Iran.

“The Chinese Intelligence Services are highly capable and continue to conduct large scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies,” said Moore. “This includes targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.”

“Chinese intelligence officers seek to exploit the open nature of our society, including through the use of social media platforms to facilitate their operations,” said Moore. “We are concerned by the Chinese government’s attempt to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe.”

He said that Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real, he warned.

He also said other countries need to wise up to China’s “debt traps, data exposure and vulnerability to political coercion that arise from dependency on relationships where there is no recourse to an independent judiciary or free press.”

Russia meanwhile continues to be a growing cyber and physical threat, with it conducting hostile cyber activities (SolarWinds etc) and real life attacks (such as the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury that injured multiple people and killed one innocent person.

And Moore also pointed out that Iran has also built up a substantial cyber capability which it has used against its regional rivals as well as countries in Europe and North America.

Moore said Iran “maintains an assassination programme which it uses against regime opponents. There are many parallels with the challenge that Russia poses, and it is no coincidence that the two countries have made common cause in Syria.”

Tech partnerships

Moore then moved onto the need for MI6 to open up and develop partnerships with the tech industry, to help it deal with the challenges within “the global digital environment.”

“As the counter terrorism example shows, there is no longer such a thing as an analogue intelligence operation in this digital world,” said Moore. “Our intelligence targets have online lives. Our officers need to operate invisibly to our adversaries.”

“And we need to be able to run our agent and technical operations in an environment in which ‘Made in China’ surveillance technology is found around the world,” said Moore.

“All of this requires insights from data, the tools to manipulate data and, most important, the talent to turn complex data into human insight,” said Moore. “The combination of technological prowess and insights from human intelligence gives the UK a powerful edge.”

“The Integrated Review elevated science and technology as a component of the highest importance to our national security and we need to work to shape international norms in collaboration with allies and partners,” he added.

“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore warned.

“An intelligence service needs to be at the vanguard of what is technologically possible,” he said, pointing out this was not new, as British intelligence pioneered technologies such as chemistry that enabled spies to produce secret writing technologies in the early days of the service, to the wireless and secure speech technologies it developed during the Second World War.

“And today we are founding members of the National Cyber Force – the UK’s unified cyber command – which conducts cyber operations to counter state threats, terrorists, and criminals and to support military deployments,” he said.

“What is new is that we are now pursuing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve our biggest mission problems,” said Moore. “We can not match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so we shouldn’t try.”

“Instead we should seek their help,” said Moore. “Through the National Security Strategic Investment Fund we are opening up our mission problems to those with talent in organisations that wouldn’t normally work with national security. Unlike Q in the Bond movies, we cannot do it all in-house.”

“I cannot stress enough what a sea-change this is in MI6’s culture, ethos and way of working, since we have traditionally relied primarily on our own capabilities to develop the world class technologies we need to stay secret and deliver against our mission,” said Moore.

It remains to be seen how any partnerships between technology firms and intelligence agencies develops in the coming years.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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