MI6 And Its Strategy To Thwart Modern Hybrid Threats

At first glance, the Vauxhall Cross building appears to lie idle in a gloomy London landscape. But this building’s top secret (but not-so-secret) function is to house the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6. A recent Financial Times interview with SIS Chief Sir Alexandre William Younger, whose coded name is “C,” reveals the daunting new global threats the national agency fights within those walls. “There was a difference, call it prosaic […] between cyber [threats] and real [threats], largely because cyber didn’t exist,” Sir Younger explains. “That’s all blurred now and we’ve got hybrid and ambiguity and conflict across the spectrum.”

In this fourth industrial revolution, we are witnessing the revolutionary emergence of a fourth-generation espionage. In December 2018, “C” exposed the threefold evolution of intelligence in his speech at St. Andrews, revealing the multi-faceted dilemmas given rise by this new evolution. The first change is called the Fusion Doctrine, which Sir Younger says is “drawing together all our national capabilities to detect, deter and counter hybrid attacks and other threats to the United Kingdom.” It goes without saying that this involves problems of cooperation, often ruled by important conflict of interests.

The second change is that MI6’s “task now is to master covert action in the data age,” Sir Younger explains. “It is not enough to know what your adversary is doing. You must be able to take steps to change their behaviour.” This implies issues of discretion when sanctioning adversaries, while still respecting rule of law.

The third and last change, as we might have expected, is “the need to ensure that technology is on our side, not that of our opponents.” The technology race is a grave threat, and one which the SIS places as a top priority. This last transformation makes the other two even more threatening.

In short, M16’s challenge is to accurately analyze the dangers engendered by the world’s new organization and respond according to the intelligence agency’s principles, to the extent of its capacities.

New breaches of British intelligence develop every day. That’s normal – this is what espionage is about. The problem is in how the M16 responds to those intimidations.

The 2018 World Economic Forum ranked cyberattacks third among risks most likely to strike in the next 10 years. Naturally, these attacks have not failed to torment the United Kingdom. The ongoing “Huawei Kit” affair is both the most recent of these and a perfect example of a hybrid offensive that fell into M16’s hands.

In 2019, Theresa May, along with the National Security Council, made the contested decision to let Huawei into Britain’s 5G network, against the advice of Sir Richard Dearlove, former SIS chief. “No part of the Communist Chinese state is ultimately able to operate free of the control exercised by its Communist party leadership,” Sir Dearlove warned. “Therefore, we must conclude the engagement of Huawei presents a potential security threat to the U.K.” This warning fell on deaf ears, and Huawei’s subsidiary equipment was connected to the network.

Last Thursday, Britain’s Huawei monitoring body confessed that flaws in Huawei’s equipment caused a vulnerability of “national significance” in the U.K.’s broadband networks last year. The National Cyber Security Center, part of the country’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and in close collaboration with the M16, were forced to edit Huawei’s code to remove the products from British telecoms and existing 5G networks. Rumour has it that the country endured a close call with a network outage. As its efforts to put the government on guard went unrecognized, the M16 was forced to conduct damage control instead of forestalling the threat.

It’s possible that there is bad blood between intelligence and the state. Yet Sir Alexandre Younger describes his interactions with the prime minister as very factual, thus not very frictional. However, Younger depicts his meetings with the National Security Council very differently. “At that point I’m asked to use my judgment,” Younger says, adding that “the key is that you are clear about the difference between the two.”  Perhaps the subjective nature of the relationship between ‘C’ and this national instance explains why British intelligence sometimes fails to make itself heard.

Importantly, while the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (comprising the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada) usually works as an asset for the MI6, it backfired on the agency this time. Peter Mandelson, president of the Great Britain-China Centre, blames the U.S. for “fomenting hysteria” about Huawei, claiming that Donald Trump “is driving a political and commercial agenda against China.” Because the SIS found itself associated with the U.S. president’s opinions, a man notorious for his biased Chinese conspiracy theories, the agency was completely discredited. This is the disadvantage of such an alliance: in a world of constant geopolitical change, one’s allies can radically differ from one year to the next.

Nonetheless, the last note Sir Younger left to M16 officials was that coexisting with our adversaries while “always stick[ing] up for what we believe in” is the ideal response to counter hybrid menaces. The new team’s duties are to refine alliances and innovate its technology while protecting its own tools from wandering hands. This way, they can identify threats earlier and catalog more proofs for informed political decisions.

That is good advice. And those wise words would be a great place to start in designing the perfect leaflet to accompany the M16’s new slogan: “Cooperation, discretion, innovation.”

To ensure that cooperation is sustainable and avoid prisoner’s dilemmas, it is necessary to remember that, as “C” once said, “Whatever an adversary can do to us, they can and have done to others.” This motivation brought many international allies, like the Five Eyes and members of the European Union, to the MI6. It is important that each of them keeps its own independence of decision. Domestic motivations are often very different from state to state, and this becomes all the more critical when we talk about today’s situation. Because the threat is hybrid, the best way to respond to an adversary drastically varies depending on what is at stake in the country in question. The nature of cooperation between state intelligence shall rest exclusively on the honest exchange of data, which allows more efficient action to be taken earlier. Most importantly, this permits countries to design stronger diplomatic answers, often used as the official surface of secret services.

Terrorism, or “the ultimate manifestation of the eroded boundaries of the 21st century,” as Sir Younger likes to call it, is a common hybrid threat Europe shares. Cooperation is crucial, and now routine. But Brexit sows fears that this cooperation may collapse. The United Kingdom’s goal, for its intelligence services’ health, is to reach a deal. Indeed, the advent of a no-deal Brexit is a game changer. Losing access to airline passenger records and to the Schengen Information System II database, as well as the ability to use European arrest warrants, would leave the M16 behind. At the Digital Transformation EXPO Europe conference, former SIS chief Sir John Sawers warned that Britain would not disclose “vital defence with a hostile power” like China or Russia, but without a deal, and with no security cooperation, this could be done exceptionally. For the SIS’s continued vitality, consensus must be reached in the U.K. Chamber.

Now for discretion. When facing the unlawful, as during the Russian Federation’s barbaric 2018 Salisbury poisoning of former MI6 agents, the SIS managed to quietly respond in line with its values. The open chemical attack on British soil was countered by organizing the largest-ever collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other allied groups. This domestic dismantling of espionage networks is the only way to prevent adversary states from accessing British intelligence’s back door and offset threats from countries like China. Freezing the enemy state’s assets when doubts rise around them, crafting new legislations against all forms of hostile state activity, and creating new counter-espionage powers are silent responses that have been proven to work efficiently. The MI6 must continue along these lines.

Finally, while every military action is filtered through NATO’s actions, the SIS must develop its own cyber warfare protocols. The initial investment of almost £2 billion in the National Cyber Security Strategy and the opening of a new National Cyber Security Centre in 2018 were first steps towards acknowledging the severity of cyber threats. But again, as discussed above, Britain’s presence in the EU, as a member or with a deal, is fundamental for the MI6 to pursue its research on technological defences.

Cyber security is of the utmost importance. If one thing is clear, it’s that, as Sir Younger says, “Even in an era of artificial intelligence, you need human intelligence.”

Mélusine Lebret


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