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MI6 will have to become “more open to stay secret” and work with tech companies to counter threats posed by China and Russia who seek to gain advantage by mastering artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
In his first speech as the foreign spy agency’s head on Tuesday, Richard Moore is expected to admit that “unlike Q in the Bond movies”, MI6 cannot develop the tools it needs in-house to counter hybrid physical and virtual threats.
It would become necessary to “tap into” the global technology industry, he added, through initiatives such as the National Security Investment Fund, which earlier this year put £100m into seven venture capital funds aimed at backing hi-tech startups.
“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,” Moore is expected to say. “We must become more open to stay secret.”
MI6 has been concerned for some time that China, in particular, could leapfrog the traditional technological advantage enjoyed by the west, and which underpins its intelligence activities. Rapid improvements in Beijing’s cyber capacity over the past five years have led some to conclude it has a capability for global surveillance.
“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” the spy chief will say.
Synthetic biology gives researchers precision tools to manipulate living organisms. Its emergence has prompted US warnings that its existence “enhances and expands” opportunities to create bioweapons, although – despite the apparent reference to Covid-19 – the UK intelligence community believes the most likely scenario is that the disease came to humans via animals.
Russia too has been rapidly developing its hacking capabilities and has been accused by the west of a sophisticated hack of the relatively obscure SolarWinds software to spy on the US government – and of allowing hackers based in the country to try to extort money from UK businesses in so-called ransomware attacks.
Last month it emerged that MI6 and the UK’s other spy agencies, MI5 and GCHQ, had signed a deal with US tech and shopping giant Amazon to host their cloud computing. A former chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, Ciaran Martin, said that would allow agencies “to get information from huge amounts of data in minutes”.
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