GCHQ boss warns China can rewrite 'the global operating system' in its own authoritarian image

Brit spymaster calls for renewed attention to UK tech capabilities – and expanded role for his agency

The director of the UK's signals intelligence agency has delivered a speech in which he contemplated power in the digital age, observing that "China's size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system," and hinting at an expanded role for the agency he leads as one way to fight back.

GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming on Friday delivered the 2021 Vincent Briscoe Lecture for the Institute for Security, Science and Technology, and opened with an observation that humans love to connect to each other, that digital connectivity continues to become more pervasive and important, and that Britain is "a big animal in the digital world."

Fleming said the UK had evolved into that status thanks to the internet being largely a creation of the West.

China's size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system

"It was a virtuous circle: government and private sector investment identified new markets and fuelled new research. Shared values among involved nations meant industry standards for emerging technologies tended to be global," he said. "This in turn encouraged free-trade and international dialogue. Those countries at the forefront gained wealth and status. This enabled national security, improved the lot of citizens, and drew in funding for the next wave of investment."

But he next warned: "We can see that significant technology leadership is moving East. It's causing a conflict of interests. Of values. Where prosperity and security are at stake."

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Fleming named Russia and China as the main threats and revised an analogy he's previously used that asserted "Russia is affecting the weather, whilst China is shaping the climate.

"That remains the case. But when it comes to technology, I'll use another analogy.

"The threat posed by Russia's activity is like finding a vulnerability on a specific app on your phone – it's potentially serious, but you can probably use an alternative.  However, the concern is that China's size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system."

States like China, he said, are readying to implement emerging technologies, and "have a competing vision for the future of cyberspace and are playing strongly into the debate around international rules and standards.

"And states that do not share our values build their own illiberal values into the standards and technology upon which we may become reliant. If that happens, and it turns out to be insecure or broken or undemocratic, everyone is going to be facing a very difficult future."

Digital currencies could be used to enable significant intrusions into the lives of citizens

Fleming highlighted "concerted campaigns to dominate international Standards developing organisations" as one area of concern, and called out smart city standards as creating risks "that we will import technology which hardwires data collection in ways that go against the interests and values of open, democratic societies.

"Digital currencies are another example. Their introduction by some governments hold significant promise to revolutionise the finance sector, making it more resilient, innovative and competitive. But designed without liberal values, they could be used to enable significant intrusions into the lives of citizens and companies in those countries, and those they do business with globally."

The world therefore faces what Fleming described as "a moment of reckoning" in which the UK and its allies need to assert their values and ensure that technology ecosystems reflect their values.

For the UK that means ensuring "a very small percentage of key technologies must be truly sovereign to retain strategic technical advantage – things like elements of the cryptographic technologies that protect the UK's most sensitive information and capabilities." Investing in such capabilities and "using statutory powers to restrict hostile foreign investment" will be needed.

Russia's activity is like finding a vulnerability in an app – potentially serious, but you can use an alternative 

For less-sensitive technologies, Fleming said the UK has "national and economic security interests to incentivise diversity of supply," and should work to ensure local firms are part of the R&D efforts and supply chains.

Fleming suggested the UK's current policy settings are decent and have delivered many successes, yet the nation must continue to provide incentives for talented people to pursue careers in tech and collaborate with like-minded nations.

And he suggested that GCHQ can help to make that happen.

"Our unique insight and expertise means we have the potential to help the country beyond our traditional intelligence, security and cyber roles. That we have a responsibility to help pioneer a new approach to this ever more complex threat," he said. ®

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