His specialty is secrecy, yet his warning was blunt.
In his second public speech in more than four years, the head of the British intelligence service said that a fourth industrial revolution is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological domains, a change that could present a “potentially existential challenge” to liberal democracies.
The rise of big data and other technologies present a call to arms for MI6 and its allies, Alex Younger, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, said during a Dec. 3 speech at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“We and our allies face a battle to make sure technology works to our advantage, not to that of our opponents,” Younger said. “There will be a dividing line between those intelligence services that grasp this, as the UK agencies have, and those services that don’t.
Younger presented MI6 as an organization in the midst of tranforming from a human intelligence agency to one that embraces technological innovation.
“We are evolving rapidly. Cyber is now our fastest-growing directorate. We are shifting our focus to the nexus between humans and technology.”
As a result, the British intelligence agency has bolstered its collaboration with the private sector though a new investment fund, according to the British intelligence head.
The speech was rare for Younger, who is also known as “C” in his official capacity, and just the second since he took the service’s top job in 2014.
“In the cyber age, newcomers will often be better equipped to solve problems than those, like me, steeped in experience can be,” Younger said.
The head of MI6 presented the world as one of liberal democracies fighting for order against an unnamed “skilled opponent unrestrained by any notion of law or morality.”
“Simply put, we’ve got to innovate faster than they can. Indeed, future generations would not forgive us if it were otherwise,” Younger said.
However, the British spy chief took square aim at one state who appears to be a member of this ideological opposition. Younger said that the British government’s use of bulk data and modern analysts contributed to embarrassing Russia after the poising of a former Kremlin spy in Salisbury.
Younger’s speech comes amid what U.S. officials have called in conversations with Fifth Domain an unprecedented intelligence cooperation between the British and American governments. They point to recent Five Eyes agreements that have bolstered cyber threat sharing and the joint attribution of malicious actors.
Younger described the British government’s attribution of the NotPetya attack by the Russian government on Ukraine as “attaching a cost to malign cyber activity.”
“Much of the evolving state threat is about our opponents’ increasingly innovative exploitation of modern technology.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.