Speech: MI6 'C' speech on fourth generation espionage

Secret Intelligence Service

December 3
15:52 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be back at St Andrews. I had no idea that I would return one day as Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS as we call ourselves or MI6, as we are known to the world.After I graduated, I joined a Scottish Regiment. But within 4 years I found myself sitting in MI6 Headquarters, staring at a blank piece of paper. I imagine some of you might be familiar with that situation.

I had been given, as my first job, the task of penetrating an organisation intent on genocide in the Western Balkans in the mid-1990s.

Starting from that blank piece of paper, I had to find my way to the heart of that organisation and obtain secret information for the British government.

It took me to places I never thought I would visit, often travelling under a false identity. It involved many nights drinking obscure homemade alcohol, piecing together the intentions of the parties to that conflict, and allowing me to create the secret relationships necessary to provide the intelligence our country urgently needed.

I had the satisfaction of knowing that my work, along with that of many others, helped to pave the way for the eventual arrest and prosecution of war criminals implicated in the murder or displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Intelligence work on its own cant stop every attack or prevent every evil. But it can shorten wars, and it can and does save lives.

That sense of pride at being part of an effort and cause greater than myself has never left me for a single day of nearly 30 years serving my country as an intelligence officer. I believe this to be true of every member of our organisation.

When I look back on those early days of my work with MI6 and ask myself how I was able to do it, I realise that it owes a great deal to this university. More than I knew at the time, St Andrews shaped me as a person.

The how shall I put it lack of distraction in this corner of Fife lends itself to deeper human relationships than are typical of university life.

St Andrews taught me to think in an open-minded way about the world. It taught me the value of the human curiosity and curiosity about humans that has propelled my career, and the career of the surprisingly large number of St Andrews graduates in the ranks of SIS.

For if you strip away the mystique that envelops our organisation, that is our fundamental role: we provide human intelligence.

Our task is to create human relationships that bridge forbidding cultural and linguistic boundaries, in some of the most challenging environments on earth and online. We do this for a specific reason: in order to obtain information and take actions required by the British government to keep this country safe.

Our skill lies in our ability to create relationships of trust between our officers and people inside the organisations we need to understand. We call these brave people agents, and they put their livelihoods, and sometimes even their lives, at risk on behalf of the United Kingdom. That is why our people, our methods and our operations must always remain secret.

While Im going to speak today about how the world is changing and SIS is changing with it, I do not expect our human intelligence role will ever change fundamentally. We will always need to understand the motivations, intentions and aspirations of people in other countries. Even in an era of artificial intelligence you need human intelligence, in fact it will become even more important in a more complex world.

The degree of interconnectedness between nations, peoples and systems today, the ubiquitous nature of information, and the exponential pace of technological change, are making the world dramatically more complicated.

This complexity has eroded the boundaries we have traditionally relied upon for our security: the boundaries between virtual and real, the domestic and the international, between states and non-state actors and between war and peace. The result is a world of far greater ambiguity.

I want to be clear: our adversaries did not create this ambiguity and they did not create the things that divide us.

But they have shown a keen willingness to exploit ambiguity in an opportunistic way, taking advantage of blurred lines to probe our institutions and defences in ways that fall short of traditional warfare.

We refer to these as hybrid threats. They include the cyber attacks, misinformation and disguised use of military force seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, combined with political obfuscation, or what you might call implausible deniability.

The good news is that we are far from powerless when confronted by these challenges.

We are better placed than most countries to cope with a world of hybrid threats, because of the strength of our alliances, our values, and our institutions. This includes the UK intelligence community. After all, ambiguity is the state SIS is constituted to dispel, but it is also the context in which we operate. We are at home with ambiguity. It is a new environment, but it is our traditional business.

We are one of the few truly global intelligence agencies, capable of going to the source of problems anywhere in the world to recruit and run secret agents, penetrate terrorist organisations, provide our government with the intelligence it needs to safeguard the national interest, give UK authorities information they need to disrupt terrorist attacks at home and against our allies, and detect and counter efforts by state and non-state actors to traffic drugs or proliferate nuclear and chemical weapons.

So SISs mission is a crucial aspect of our strength as a democracy, and as a member of the Western Alliance in the 21st century.

As Chief I rarely speak in public. I am a spy. And less is more. This is only my second public speech in 4 years; and you might have to wait quite a long time for another one.

But I am speaking today because it is vital that people hear enough about SIS to know what we really do as opposed to the myths about what we do and because we want talented young people across our country to join us.

While I am delighted to say that we recruit the very brightest talent, and have extraordinary young people working in our organisation, this is not something I will ever take for granted. We are going to need the most diverse and skilled officers possible in the years ahead. Because the reality of the world is going to become more ambiguous, and more complicated.

While I was St Andrews I also studied computer science. The radical thought in those days was that computers would soon be able to talk to each other. Now, billions of people and devices are connected worldwide.

We are in the early stages of a fourth industrial revolution that will further blur the lines between the physical, the digital and biological realms. Lawfully used, technology such as bulk data, modern analytics and machine learning is a golden opportunity for society at large, including for MI6 as an organisation.

But I have also witnessed the damage new technologies can do in the hands of a skilled opponent unrestrained by any notion of law or morality, as well as the potentially existential challenge the data age poses to the traditional operating methods of a secret intelligence agency. We and our allies face a battle to make sure technology works to our advantage, not to that of our opponents. Liberal democracies should approach this with confidence, as the originators of this technology.

But the twin drivers of technological change and international complexity mean that we have to keep adapting if we are to be as effective at spying in the future as we are today. There will be a dividing line between those Intelligence Services that grasp this, as the UK agencies have, and those services that dont.

The era of the fourth industrial revolution calls for a fourth generation espionage: fusing our traditional human skills with accelerated innovation, new partnerships and a mindset that mobilises diversity and empowers the young.

Across the century of SISs existence, we have evolved continuously to confront each generation of threat: from the World Wars to the Cold War to the rise of transnational threats including international terrorism. Now, we are evolving again to meet the threats of the hybrid age the fourth generation I am speaking of.

This evolution takes 3 forms, that I want to describe to you:

First, when your defences as a country are being probed on multiple fronts at the same time, it can be difficult to see the totality of what your opponent is trying to do. Security in the hybrid world is therefore all about who can partner to the greatest effect.

In the UK, we call this the Fusion Doctrine, and it involves drawing together all our national capabilities to detect, deter and counter hybrid attacks and other threats to the United Kingdom.

When I joined SIS, operations were largely conducted by individuals, as the story of my blank sheet of paper on my first mission suggests.

We now operate dynamic teams that draw on skills and knowledge across the whole of SIS: bringing together the formidable talents of our agent recruiters and runners, our analysts, our subject matter experts, our linguis

Related Articles


  1. We don't have any comments for this article yet. Why not join in and start a discussion.

Write a Comment

Your name:
Your email:

Post my comment

Recent Comments

Follow Us on Twitter

Share This

Enjoyed this? Why not share it with others if you've found it useful by using one of the tools below: