Spy chief's warning: Our foes are now 'pouring money' into quantum computing and AI

In a rare public speech, MI6 chief warns that hostile states are focused on quantum and AI.
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer

The rise of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing is changing the world -- and intelligence services must adapt in order to operate in an increasingly digital environment, the head of MI6 has warned.

In his first public speech since taking the role of "C" in October 2020, Richard Moore, chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), discussed the challenges posed by the rapid evolution in technology.

While developments in computing like AI and quantum computing can provide society with what he described as "revolutionary advances," Moore warned that they also lead to additional security threats that MI6 will need to face.

"Others would speak to you about the benefits of these new discoveries -- and they are myriad -- but I'm paid to look at the threat side of the ledger. MI6 deals with the world as it is, not as we'd like it to be -- and the digital attack surface that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us is growing exponentially," he said, in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Moore warned that China, Russia and Iran are the most significant nation-state threats to the UK who could exploit technology to meet their aims, citing the SolarWinds cyberattack, which has been attributed to the Russian foreign intelligence, as a key example of this.

Also: Hackers could steal encrypted data now and crack it with quantum computers later, warn analysts

In order to confront the challenges posed by the growing global digital environment, MI6 needs to ensure that it has the human intelligence capabilities to analyse and understand data that could help provide insights, keep agents in the field informed and ultimately help protect the UK from threats.

"There is no longer such a thing as an analogue intelligence operation in this digital world," said Moore. "All of this requires insights from data, the tools to manipulate data and, most importantly, the talent to turn complex data into human insight. The combination of technological prowess and insights from human intelligence gives the UK a powerful edge."

He warned: "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."

Moore warned that MI6 "needs to be at the vanguard of what is technologically possible" in order to stand the best chance of protecting the UK from security threats.

But while MI6 has traditionally worked in the shadows, now it's stepping out of them in order to ensure it has access to have the people required to help solve the problems faced by new technologies.

"We can't match the scale and resources of the global tech industry, so shouldn't try. Instead, we should seek their help. Through the National Security Strategic Investment Fund, we are opening up our mission problems 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," said Moore.

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By looking to outside experts in emerging technologies, the aim is to help improve MI6 operations and innovate faster than the UK's adversaries -- and it represents a significant shift from the secretive operations of the past, one he stressed also requires increased diversity to represent better the population MI6 serves.

"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," said Moore, adding: "We must become more open, to stay secret."

By adapting MI6 to be able to bring in expertise to help work with emerging technologies, it's hoped that the approach allow the intelligence service to keep the UK safe from threats, no matter where in the world they come from. 

"My mission as Chief is to ensure the successful transformation and modernisation of our organisation: extending MI6's secret human relationships to reflect the changing nature of power and influence in the world; investing in the skills a global intelligence agency needs in the digital age and meeting the technological challenge head-on by opening up -- to an unprecedented degree -- to partners who can help us master the technologies we need for our operations, and enable us to innovate faster than our adversaries," Moore said. 

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