LONDON: China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism form the “big four” set of security threats in an era of dramatic change, Britain’s chief spy said in a rare public speech on Tuesday.
Richard Moore, who is the head of the UK’s foreign intelligence service MI6 and codenamed “C” as depicted in James Bond films, said that countries like China are using “debt traps, data exposure” to erode sovereignty and democracy.
In his first public speech since taking charge last year, the spy chief explained that it was the changing nature of the threats requiring a greater degree of openness that prompted him to make the rare address entitled ‘Human Intelligence in a Digital Age’ at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank in London.
“There are elements of continuity, Russia, China and Iran, for instance, have long been three of what I might informally call the ‘big four’ priorities within the intelligence community; the fourth being the threat from international terrorism,” said Moore.
“But mostly, we are living through an era of dramatic change in the security landscape. We have to defend ourselves as a country against a growing threat from state actors, within an international system which is not working as it should to constrain conflict and aggression.
“We face adversaries who are feeling emboldened, encounter fewer constraints, and are able to draw on greater resources than in the past,” he said.
The intelligence chief revealed that a large part of the UK’s security and prosperity is increasingly tied up with China’s actions and policies because despite trade cooperation, the fact remains that China is an authoritarian state “with different values from ours”.
“The Chinese Intelligence Services are highly capable and continue to conduct large scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies. This includes the targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora,” Moore revealed.
“Chinese intelligence officers seek to exploit the open nature of our society, including through the use of social media platforms to facilitate their operations.
“We are concerned by the Chinese government’s attempt to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe,” he noted.
On Russia, he warned of “state-sanctioned attacks” and interference in democratic processes that are of great concern.
“More often than not these Russian state activities are designed to be covert, or at least deniable. However, we are also seeing more brazen activity – often linked to the personal enrichment of elites around President Putin – the denial of which is increasingly implausible,” Moore said.
Iran was also flagged as posing a major threat as it uses the political and militant group Hezbollah — “a state within a state” — to fuel political turmoil in neighbouring countries.
The “white-hot focus” area highlighted by Moore for his agency was technology and its rapid progress.
“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. An intelligence service needs to be at the vanguard of what is technologically possible,” he said.
Tracing the wireless and secure speech technologies developed during the Second World War to conducting cyber operations akin to those seen in Bond films, Moore revealed that the MI6 is now moving into private sector collaborations to stay ahead of the tech game.
“What is new is that we are now pursuing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve our biggest mission problems… Unlike Q in the Bond movies, we cannot do it all in-house,” he said.
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, began publicly naming its chief in place of the just the codename C only in the 1990s.
Moore, the first head of the SIS with a Twitter account, admitted that “we must become more open, to stay secret” as his speech marked a decisive shift in the workings of the MI6.