UK spy boss warns China hopes Russia will help it take over tech standards

Speech also alleges Russian troops in Ukraine have mutinied, shot down own plane

The director of UK intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Sir Jeremy Fleming, has warned that China is trying to introduce "undemocratic values as the default for vast swathes of future tech and the standards that govern it."

In a speech delivered on Thursday at the Australian National University's National Security College, Fleming said the world is experiencing "generational upheaval" of security architectures.

One sign of that upheaval is China's increasingly strident attempts to shape technology standards.

China believes Russia will support its digital markets and technology plans

"China is a sophisticated player in cyberspace. It has increasing ambition to project its influence beyond its borders and a proven interest in our commercial secrets," Fleming said.

"It also has a competing vision for the future of cyberspace and it's increasingly influential in the debate around international rules and standards. China's bringing all elements of state power to control, influence design and dominate technology – if you like, the cyber and the fiber," he added.

"Without action it is increasingly apparent that the key technologies on which we all rely on for prosperity and security won't be shaped and controlled by the West in the future," Fleming said.

Fleming is not a lone voice on this issue. The Biden administration has made increased US presence in standards processes a priority, and the internet community has pushed back strongly against China's plan for a "New IP" standard that has potential to fragment the internet and allow more central control. China is pushing New IP through the International Telecommunications Union – not the Internet Engineering Task Force or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers that currently drive IP development and internetworking standards. China's choice of standards bodies is widely interpreted as forum shopping, to find a receptive audience for a proposal that would not be accepted by current gatekeepers.

The director predicted China and Russia's recently restated friendship could derail China's attempts to become a cyber power.

"China believes Russia will provide additional impetus and support to its digital markets and its technology plans," he opined. "A China that wants to set the rules of the road –the norms for a new global governance – is not well served by close alliance with a regime that wilfully and illegally ignores them all."

Fleming's speech also offered an assessment of Russia's cyber-ops in its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

"We've seen sustained intent from Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems," he said, plus "what looks like some spillover of activity affecting surrounding countries. And we've certainly seen indications which suggests Russia's cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions."

Fleming said some have expressed surprise that Russia has not executed cyber attacks on a scale that would see them considered "cyber Pearl Harbors."

"It was never our understanding that a catastrophic cyber-attack was central to Russia's use of offensive cyber or to their military doctrine," he said.

Fleming offered other observations on the illegal war. Among them: "It increasingly looks like Putin has massively misjudged the situation.

"It's clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanise. He under-played the economic consequences of the sanctions regime. He over-estimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory.

"We've seen Russian soldiers – short of weapons and morale – refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft."

Russia's use of misinformation has also not gone well.

"Russia wrote the hybrid warfare book," Fleming said. "State media, online media and agents of influence are all used to obfuscate motivations and justify military actions." Promulgating disinformation to "sow mistrust in the evidence and to amplify false narratives" is another Russian tactic.

"But here again, it's clear that Putin has miscalculated. President Zelensky's information operation has shown itself to be extremely effective. It's agile, multi-platform, multi-media and extremely well-tailored to different audiences.

"In the UK, it's focused in a new Government Information Cell which identifies and counters Kremlin disinformation targeted at UK and international audiences," Fleming added, noting unprecedented use of intelligence to combat Russian misinformation.

"In my view, intelligence is only worth collecting if we use it, so I unreservedly welcome this development," Fleming said.

Fleming concluded his talk by calling for renewed collaboration between nations, and for nations to begin "working with businesses in new and truly collaborative ways.

"And to do this we need to make sure that our counteroffer – to states who haven't yet decided which way they should jump – is persuasive and coherent. Too often it's not.

"Whatever we do, we must make sure that we stay true to our values – those that have made our systems and democracies so successful and will do so in the future too," he added, but also noted "all of this change will take decades to resolve.

"But what I can be clear on now is that how we approach these challenges will be as important as what our response is." ®

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