British Spies Must Adapt to Survive

Britain's senior spy chief says that ‘the digital era has profoundly changed our operating environment’.  Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, must become more open in order to do its secret work effectively. That's according to its chief, Richard Moore, in his first major public speech since taking on the role in October 2020.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing and digital technology have combined to completely transform the way human intelligence is gathered by spies, presenting MI6 with major challenges in the digital age.

The West's adversaries such as China and Russia are racing to master Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a way which could revolutionise geopolitics over the next ten years Moors said, in a rare public appearance at the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

As one of Britain's three intelligence agencies, along with the domestic security service (MI5) and GCHQ, MI6's role has always been to acquire secrets from overseas targets to help protect Britain's national security. While human intelligence - old-fashioned spying - is central to its work, the MI6 chief points to his service's innovations over time. Examples range "from the chemistry that enabled us to produce secret writing technologies in the early days, to the wireless and secure speech technologies we developed during the Second World War".

Inside the MI6 London HQ there is a real-life 'Q Section' that works to provide Britain's spies with the latest gadgets to keep them safe and secret, although mastering intelligence in the age of rapidly accelerating technology is no longer  something the British spy agency can do by itself. 

Moore said that the rapid speed of technological development has been a key contributing factor in making the world a “dramatically more complicated” place. 

MI6 is growing is cyber directorate faster than any other unit and is setting up partnerships with technology companies and experts across industry and academia. To help cultivate innovation, there is also a focus on recruiting people from a wide range of backgrounds and in possession of a diverse array of skills.

Biometric data and facial recognition have made it far harder for intelligence officers to assume false identities in hostile countries without being recognised and exposed. Furthermore,  the traditional boundaries between virtual and real; the domestic and the international; between states and non-state actors and between war and peace have grown opaque. 

Britain's  Adversaries

Russia has been rapidly developing its hacking capabilities and has been accused of perpetrating a wide range of large scale, sophisticated, hacking activities directed against critical infrastructure, the private sector and numerous Western government agencies.There have been powerful attempts by hackers under Russian protection to extort money from UK businesses in ransomware attacks. "Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology because they know... this will give them leverage" Moore said.

MI6 will have to become “more open to stay secret” and work with tech companies to counter threats posed by China and Russia who seek to gain advantage by mastering artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. Despite the importance of cutting edeg technologies “I do not expect our human intelligence role will ever change fundamentally,” Moore said.

“We will always need to understand the motivations, intentions and aspirations of people in other countries. Even in an era of artificial intelligence, you need human intelligence. In fact, it will become even more important in a more complex world.” 

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