MI6 head: Do not underestimate UK cyber defence

Written by Hannah McGrath

The head of MI6 has used a rare public speech to warn Russia and other state adversaries “not to underestimate” the UK’s cyber defence capabilities to counter emerging threats.

In his second speech since becoming head of the Secret Intelligence Services in 2014, Alex Younger, known as chief of the agency or ‘C’, said that rogue states view themselves in a state of “perpetual confrontation” with the UK, but emphasised the UK was “well equipped” to respond.

In a speech to students at the University of St Andrews in Scotland yesterday, Younger said the changing security landscape called for a “fourth generation” of espionage which combines traditional human skills with technology.

Outlining the UK’s resolve to meet the challenge from malicious cyber-attacks, Younger urged: “Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies.”

He revealed to the students how MI6 helped to expose the Russian agents said to have carried out the Salisbury nerve agent attack and described how it helped to co-ordinate the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in response to the incident.

“The era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth generation of espionage: fusing our traditional human skills with accelerated innovation, new partnerships and a mindset that mobilises diversity and empowers the young,” stated Younger, who also underlined the importance of increasing ties with Europe in the interests of joint security after Brexit. He revealed that working with foreign intelligence services had disrupted “multiple” attacks planned by Islamic State overseas.

Using the speech as a public MI6 recruitment exercise, Younger spoke of the need for greater diversity in the ranks of the intelligence agency.

“I want to speak to young people who have never seen themselves in MI6,” he said. “It doesn't matter where you are from. If you want to make a difference and you think you might have what it takes, then the chances are that you do have what it takes, and we hope you will step forward.”

In September, it was reported that the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ were planning to boost the UK’s cyber defence capabilities with an offensive cyber force of up to 2,000 people.

In a report published in October, Ciaran Martin, chief executive of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, said the UK was battling more than 10 cyber attacks every week, and emphasised that there was “little doubt” that the UK will face a cyber security threat that could threaten lives and critical national infrastructure in the coming years.