MI6 chief calls for tech-enabled ‘fourth-generation espionage’

Written by Sam Trendall on 5 December 2018 in News
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In rare speech, top spy Alex Younger claimed that ‘the digital era has profoundly changed our operating environment’

Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

The head of MI6 has claimed that digital technology has “profoundly changed” the work of his organisation as he called for a new era of espionage that melds human and artificial intelligence.

In a rare public address – only his second in four years as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly referred to as MI6 – Alex Younger (pictured above on stage) told students at St Andrews University that the “world is changing, and SIS is changing with it”.


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“I do not expect our human intelligence role will ever change fundamentally,” he 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.”

"Bulk data combined with modern analytics make the modern world transparent, a fact which contributed to GRU embarrassment after the Salisbury attack. But it is also a serious challenge if used against us."

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

Younger said: “This complexity has eroded the boundaries we have traditionally relied upon for our security: the boundaries between virtual and real; the domestic and the international; between states and non-state actors; and between war and peace. The result is a world of far greater ambiguity.”

The MI6 chief, who is known as ‘C’, told attendees that he had chosen to speak publicly, in part, to inform people about “what we really do – as opposed to the myths about what we do”. But also because the organisation wants to attract “talented young people” with a diverse range of skills to help meet the challenges of the changing world.

“We are in the early stages of a fourth industrial revolution that will further blur the lines between the physical, the digital and biological realms,” he said. “Lawfully used, technology such as bulk data, modern analytics and machine learning is a golden opportunity for society at large, including for MI6 as an organisation.”

Younger added: “But I have also witnessed the damage new technologies can do in the hands of a skilled opponent unrestrained by any notion of law or morality, as well as the potentially existential challenge the data age poses to the traditional operating methods of a secret intelligence agency. We and our allies face a battle to make sure technology works to our advantage, not to that of our opponents. Liberal democracies should approach this with confidence, as the originators of this technology.”

Change ahead
The MI6 boss claimed that the “era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth-generation espionage”. This, he said, will see human skills complemented by the power of new technologies.

He said that the work of the intelligence services is evolving in three major ways.

The first of these is that, as countries’ defences are “being probed on multiple fronts at the same time”, developing effective partnerships between organisations is key to national security. This will involve greater collaboration within MI6, as well as working with other agencies across intelligence and law enforcement and with overseas allies.

The second big change concerns the need to “master covert action in the data age”, Younger said. 

“When I joined SIS, our principal task was finding out secrets,” he added. “In a world of hybrid threats, it is not enough to know what your adversary is doing. You must be able to take steps to change their behaviour.”

The third challenge for MI6 to overcome is “the need to ensure that technology is on our side, not that of our opponents”. 

“The digital era has profoundly changed our operating environment,” he said. “Bulk data combined with modern analytics make the modern world transparent, a fact which contributed to GRU (Russian intelligence agency) embarrassment after the Salisbury attack. But it is also a serious challenge if used against us.”

"We and our allies face a battle to make sure technology works to our advantage, not to that of our opponents. Liberal democracies should approach this with confidence, as the originators of this technology."

Younger said that, in the face of “increasingly innovative exploitation of modern technology” on the part of the UK’s adversaries, the security services need to ensure their use of tech is outpacing that of their peers in other countries.

He added “Simply put, we’ve got to innovate faster than they can.”

To do so, MI6 is growing is cyber directorate faster than any other unit, Younger said, and is, for the first time, establishing 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.

“We are determined, of course, to attract people with an even higher level of technical skill to join our ranks, in the best traditions of Q,” he added. “But my organisation will need to adapt even faster if it is to thrive in the future. And that will require people with new perspectives, capable of harnessing their creativity in ways that we can’t yet even imagine.”

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Sam Trendall
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Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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