Richard Moore, known to spies as C and who oversees the UK’s foreign intelligence apparatus, gave a rare broadcast interview on Tuesday morning.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while he believed that free societies possessed an advantage over authoritarian ones, “we need to be very robust in fighting our corner” and leverage “the entrepreneurial animal spirits” within science and technology to keep pace with Beijing.
Later on Tuesday, Mr Moore was set to say in a speech that, as hostile governments and criminals developed artificial intelligence and quantum computing attacks, not only SIS but also GCHQ and MI5 would have to “tap into” the technology industry’s expertise.
He was due to admit that this would represent a “sea change” for his organisation, which in decades past has worn a heavy cloak of secrecy.
Before his speech Mr Moore told Today that Britain had observed China using loans and debt to “acquire significant ports that have the potential to become naval facilities”, doing by economic means what nations including the UK and US had done in the past by force.
But he added that data and technology now provided a comparable avenue for Xi Jinping’s government to gain power.
He said: “If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty – you no longer have control over that data.
“That’s something which I think in the UK we are very alive to and we’ve taken measures to defend against. It’s not true, I think, in all the conversations I have around the globe, but I’m very keen that people should understand that.”
Mr Moore, who was named as MI6 chief last July, told Today that under Mr Xi it was clear “we are now in a more assertive stage with China, China has expectations of its role in the international community”.
He said that while elements of Beijing’s behaviour were “perfectly legitimate”, it was also true that “China is controlled by an authoritarian regime, that they don’t share our values and, often, their interests clash with ours”. But he added he did not support an “adversarial” relationship with the rising superpower.
Also during Tuesday’s interview, Mr Moore:
- Denied that spies’ misreading of the run-up to the fall of Kabul could be described as an “intelligence failure”. Such a label would be “overblown”, he claimed, adding: “If we had recruited every member of [the leadership of the Taliban] as a secret agent, we still wouldn't have predicted the fall of Kabul because the Taliban didn’t.”
- Said MI6 would have to be more open in order to maintain its edge in the world of secret agents. He said: “If we are faced with those technological threats to our business model, our way of going about doing our job, then we have to stay ahead of that curve. We have traditionally done an awful lot in-house but increasingly we are going to have to work with the tech sector to be able to tap into their extraordinary abilities.”
- Insisted that people need not fear for their privacy as SIS develops its digital capabilities. Mr Moore claimed that “we have to act within the law”, in contrast with Chinese spies. The service’s engagement with technology firms was more aimed at helping its agents circumvent the comprehensive surveillance structures of dictatorial countries than snooping on individuals, he suggested.
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