The head of the UK's secretive Military Intelligence Section 6 agency – popularly known as MI6 – has delivered a rare speech in which he has warned that China, Iran, and Russia use information technology to destabilise rivals, and that the agency he leads can no longer rely on in-house innovation to develop the technologies the UK needs to defend itself.
MI6 boss Richard Moore (whose initial, one notes, is 'M') delivered a speech on Thursday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and opened with an explanation of why the normally reclusive agency had taken the unusual step of allowing its leader to speak in public.
His argument was that "the changing nature of the threats that we face requires a greater degree of openness from a modern intelligence agency" meaning that "to stay secret, we are going to have to become more open".
That creed is needed, Moore said, because MI6 faces many new challenges – among them pervasive digital technology and increasing use of AI – that create a "digital attack surface" that is growing exponentially. Criminals, terrorists, and hostile states have noticed that growth and are trying to exploit it.
"According to some assessments, we may experience more technological progress in the next ten years than in the last century, with a disruptive impact equal to the industrial revolution," Moore said. Society may not have pondered what that means, but "it is a white-hot focus for MI6".
Despite technology's growing role in threats, Moore argued that MI6's speciality in human intelligence – recruitment and ongoing engagement with clandestine agents in other countries – remains a critical intelligence tool.
With regard to China, that means developing a better understanding of how the Middle Kingdom seeks to influence other nations. Moore said China uses social media to distort global debate, employs surveillance technology within its borders, seeks to export its methods to other nations, and has exported millions of potentially compromised items like security cameras around the world.
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On Russia, he said Vladimir Putin's regime has no qualms running deniable operations like the attack on SolarWinds. Iran has similar infosec capabilities and has used them to attack targets in the Middle East, North America, and Europe.
To combat those foes, MI6 is "pursuing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve our biggest mission problems".
"We can not match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so we shouldn't try," Moore argued. "Instead, we should seek their help." The UK's National Security Strategic Investment Fund is one example of that outreach "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," Moore admitted.
He added that this sort of collaboration represents an enormous change to 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".
Today, the kind of collaborations mentioned above are necessary. As are new recruits – Moore said he hoped that his frank disclosures about his agency's needs, and the work it pursues, encourage more people to sign up for duty.
And that, Moore said, is the paradox of staying secret by being open – without speeches like this, MI6 won't get the people it needs, even if that means disappointing recruits by definitively stating that Q is fictional. The speech does not touch on what MI6 thinks is an appropriate attitude to Santa Claus. ®