Cyber-spies are adding to difficult world for intelligence agencies, says former security chief

Former MI5 chief says cyber-espionage and the balance between security and privacy means 'we're facing a very difficult world'.
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer

Cyberespionage has quickly become a global problem - but there's no definitive answer to fighting it.

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The threat of cyber-espionage and nation-state backed hacking has loomed long over elections around the globe in the past year, but it's still not clear how to tackle it, according to a former head of of the UK's security service.

"We're facing a very difficult world. A world with cyber-espionage which nobody really knows how to deal with," said Dame Stella Rimington, who served as director general of MI5 between 1991 and 1996.

"We're facing a world with very complex communications which make it very difficult for intelligence agencies to keep chase with the changes which are taking place," said Rimington, speaking at the Infosecurity Europe conference in London.

"These are incredibly difficult things our service and our society are having to deal with and I'm relying on you to produce some sort of sensible solution to these problems that we face," she added, addressing the audience of cyber-security professionals.

Russia has already been accused of using cyberattacks to influence the US presidential election, and cyberattackers operating on behalf of Russian interests are also accused of interfering in the French election by leaking emails in an effort to turn voters against Emmanuel Macron . The UK's GCHQ has also warned that hackers could attempt to use cyberattacks to interfere in British polls.

However, Rimington also warned against the possibility of knee-jerk reactions in order to defend against new threats, be that from cyber-spies or terrorists

"Change is constant, change has been going on since the dawn of time - at least since my time in this field - and it will go on. But the key thing is it's got to be carefully managed," she said, arguing that security needs to ensure the right response is made - not just a quick one.

Changes shouldn't be pushed through because something's happened and someone or something needs to be blamed because "that's not the way to deal with security," she said.

Rimington's speech came days after the terrorist attack at London Bridge, an incident which has already seen Prime Minister Theresa May call for additional regulation of the internet.

Noting that there's always conflict between democracy and security - Rimington said that there isn't a single answer to the privacy vs protection debate. "The line will move depending on the threats they're [The government] trying to protect us against," she said.


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