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The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, will open up to technology companies in an unprecedented way to keep pace with tech developments in Russia and China.
MI6 chief Richard Moore said in his first public speech that the agency would work more closely with technology companies to help it innovate.
That meant the spy organisation would be “opening up to an unprecedented degree” to tech partners in a move “to enable us to innovate faster than our adversaries”, he said.
Moore, who took over as chief of MI6 in October 2020, said the agency had begun pursuing partnerships with the tech community to develop technologies that it is unable to develop itself.
“We can’t match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so we should not try. Instead, we should seek their help,” he said in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
Moore disclosed that a government-backed investment programme, the National Security Strategic Investment Fund (NSSIF), would play a key role in opening MI6 to organisations that would not normally work on national security projects.
The NSSIF, modelled on the US CIA’s venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel, has made a series of investments in UK startups, which could offer UK intelligence agencies strategically important technology.
The 58-year-old intelligence chief, who has run overseas agents for MI6, identified what he called “the big four set of threats” facing the UK: China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism.
“We can’t match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so we should not try. Instead, we should seek their help”
Richard Moore, MI6
He set these against a backdrop of an “overarching technical challenge” facing the intelligence service.
Increasing computer power, advances in data science and the huge volumes of data now available will mean the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into almost every aspect of life, said Moore. Advances in quantum engineering and biology will change entire industries.
“The ‘digital attack surface’ that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us is growing exponentially,” he said.
Even in a digital world, critical decisions are made by real people and MI6 needs to understand what motivates the UK’s adversaries, their intentions, their plans and their message (see box below). “We need to be able to reduce the space within which they can act against us with impunity, on or off-line,” said Moore.
Concerns about China
Chinese intelligence services are highly capable and continue to conduct large-scale espionage operations against the UK and its allies, he said. “This includes the targeting of those working in government, industries or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state.”
Chinese intelligence officers seek to exploit the openness of the UK, including social media platforms, Moore added. “We are concerned by the Chinese government’s attempt to distort public discourse and political decision-making across the globe.”
The Chinese “surveillance state” has targeted the Uighur population in Xinjiang, carrying out widespread human rights abuses, including the arbitrary detention of an estimated one million Muslims. “We need to be able to operate undetected as secret intelligence agencies everywhere within the worldwide surveillance web,” he said.
Russia, Iran, terrorism
Russia has been responsible for cyber attacks, including the SolarWinds infiltration, state-sanctioned attacks, such as the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the deployment of private military companies in Africa and Syria, said Moore.
Iran has built up a substantial cyber capability which it has used against regional rivals and countries in Europe and North America.
Counter-terrorism work has become more difficult, he said. MI6 maintains an “intense focus” on developing relationships with agents in the field and technical capabilities to degrade existing terrorist groups.
In Afghanistan, MI6’s priority is to stop the “re-emergence of large-scale international terrorist operations” from the Taliban-controlled country, said Moore.
Surveillance technology is making the work of MI6 more challenging, he said. “Our officers need to operate invisibly to our adversaries. And we need to be able to run our agent and technical operations in an environment in which ‘made in China’ surveillance technology is found around the world.”
This requires insights from data, tools to manipulate data, and people with the skills to turn data into insights, Moore added.
MI6 has always been at the leading edge of innovation, from secret writing technologies produced in the agency’s early days to secure speech technologies developed during the Second World War, he said.
MI6 is a founder member of the National Cyber Force, which conducts cyber operations to counter state threats, terrorists, criminals and to support military deployments.
New partnerships with tech
“What is new is that we are now pursing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve our biggest mission problems,” said Moore.
“I cannot stress enough what a sea-change this is in 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.
“Unlike Q in the Bond movies, we cannot do it all in-house.”
The National Security Strategic Investment Fund is offering technology companies funding to develop tools that could be used by the intelligence services in the future.
The fund, which was announced in 2017 and backed by an initial £85m in funds, is tacit recognition that the state organisations that pioneered encryption can no longer keep pace with advances in the private sector on their own.
The investment fund, a joint initiative between the government and the British Business Bank, aims to support advanced technology companies that are working on technologies that have dual use in national security and commerce, with long-term equity investments.
It provides funding for projects of long-term interest to the intelligence community, which includes MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the National Crime Agency, and for defence.
The fund lists 12 priority areas, including the capture, recording and analysis of audio and visual data, space and robotics, technologies that can measure and infer human behaviour at scale, cyber security, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).
Other priority areas are technology to track financial information, locating or hiding identifying information about individuals and groups, the internet of things (IoT), the movement of data securely without detection between geographical locations, sensors, novel materials and power sources, quantum technology, and biological and medical technology.
Publicly identified companies supported by the fund include Hazy, which creates “synthetic data” based on the statistical characteristics of real data, without including the original sensitive information.
Another company that has won support is Element, a secure corporate messaging service, which protects messages from access by third parties.
The fund has also backed Codility, which provides organisations with tools to recruit staff online, test their technical skills and train them remotely.
The fund works with a “select group” of venture investment funds, including AlbionVC, Amadeus Capital Partners, Dawn, Longwall Ventures, Evolution Equity Partners, Notion and Oxx.
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