China, Russia and Iran pose three of the biggest threats to the UK in a fast-changing, unstable world, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency said Tuesday.
MI6 chief Richard Moore said the three countries and international terrorism make up the “big four” security issues confronting Britain's spies.
In his first public speech since becoming head of the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, in October 2020, Moore said China is the intelligence agency's “single greatest priority” as the country's leadership increasingly backs “bold and decisive action” to further its interests.
Calling China “an authoritarian state with different values than ours,” he said Beijing conducts “large-scale espionage operations” against the UK and its allies, tries to ”distort public discourse and political decision-making” and exports technology that enables a “web of authoritarian control” around the world.
Moore said the UK also continues “to face an acute threat from Russia.” He said Moscow has sponsored killing attempts, such as the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018, mounts cyberattacks and attempts to interfere in other countries’ democratic processes.
“We and our allies and partners must stand up to and deter Russian activity which contravenes the international rules-based system,” the MI6 chief said.
Moore said Iran also poses a major threat, and uses the political and militant group Hezbollah — “a state within a state” — to fuel political turmoil in neighboring countries.
He argued that Britain’s spies must give up some of their deep-rooted secrecy and seek help from technology firms to win a cybersecurity arms race that is giving hostile countries and groups ever more capacity.
Moore, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence and other rapidly developing technologies means the spy agency has to “become more open to stay secret” in a world of destabilizing technological change.
“According to some assessments, we may experience more technological progress in the next 10 years than in the last century, with a disruptive impact equal to the Industrial Revolution,” he said. “As a society, we have yet to internalize this stark fact and its potential impact on global geopolitics.
“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore said.
To keep up, he said British spies “are now pursuing partnerships with the tech community to help develop world-class technologies to solve our biggest mission problems.”
“Unlike Q in the Bond movies, we cannot do it all in-house,” Moore added, referring to the fictional MI6 gadget-maker in the 007 thrillers.
Moore said working with the private sector is a “sea change” for an organization enmeshed in secrecy. Until 1992, Britain’s government refused to confirm the existence of MI6. The organization has gradually become more open in recent years, even allowing publication of an authorized history -- though it only goes up to 1949.
MI6 began publicly naming its chief, who uses the code name C, in the 1990s, and Moore is the first head of the service with a Twitter account.