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Digital spooksMI6 to recruit hundreds more staff in response to advances in digital technology,

Published 22 September 2016

MI6, the U.K.’s overseas intelligence service, is set to recruit hundreds more digital specialists over the next four years in response to the ever-growing digital threats and challenges posed by advancing digital technology. MI6 employs 2,500 people, and the agency focuses on intelligence-gathering and operations outside the United Kingdom. MI5 is in charge of security within the United Kingdom (James Bond worked for MI6). In a rare public appearance, Alex Younger, the head of MI6, said of terrorism: “regrettably, this is an enduring issue which will certainly be with us, I believe, for our professional lifetime.”

MI6, the U.K.’s overseas intelligence service, is set to recruit hundreds more digital specialists over the next four years in response to the ever-growing digital threats and challenges posed by advancing digital technology.

MI6 employs 2,500 people, and the agency focuses on intelligence-gathering and operations outside the United Kingdom. MI5 is in charge of security within the United Kingdom (James Bond worked for MI6).

The government last year announced that the security services would be given 1,900 additional staff – with MI6 being the main beneficiary. BBC’s Newsnight reported that MI6’s staff would increase by about 1,000, but government sources indicated that number is too high.

The Times reports that intelligence agencies around the world are increasingly reliant on the Internet, social media, and biometric technologies such as facial recognition, rather than on old-fashioned agents in the field.

Alex Younger, the head of MI6, on Tuesday spoke at a CIA-organized conference held the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., saying: “The information revolution fundamentally changes our operating environment. In five years’ time there will be two sorts of intelligence services: those that understand this fact and have prospered, and those that don’t and haven’t. And I’m determined that MI6 will be in the former category.

“The third and most important part of British intelligence is the surveillance agency GCHQ, which in partnership with the U.S. National Security Agency, is responsible for scooping up most of the intelligence through tracking phone calls, emails, chat lines and other communications.”

Younger voiced concern about adversaries exploiting these new capabilities. He said: “Our opponents, who are unconstrained by conditions of lawfulness or proportionality, can use these capabilities to gain increasing visibility of our activities which means that we have to completely change the way that we do stuff.”

The NSA and GCHQ have both relied heavily on cooperation from the major Internet and technology companies, but the 2013 Snowden revelations soured this relationship. Technology companies were especially displeased to realize that in spite of their cooperation with the NSA, the agency, surreptitiously, was accessing additional information on their customers by using backdoors.

Younger said: “I think that the real issue for us has been the effect that this has had on the levels of trust between the intelligence communities internationally and the technology community where I think that the right and proper response to the common threats that face us is through community of effort and teamwork between those different groups. And to the extent that those revelations damaged and undermined the trust that needs to exist, I think it is highly problematic.”

Asked about the threat from groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, Younger said: “I would like to be optimistic about this but we have got quite a long experience of this phenomenon now and I see it very much as the flip-side to some very deep-seated global trends, not least of all globalization: the reduction of barriers between us.

“It’s a function also of the information revolution and the capacity for ideas to travel. It is fueled by a deepening sectarian divide in the Middle East and there are some deep social economic and demographic drivers to the phenomenon that we know as terrorism. Allied with the emergence of state failure this means that, regrettably, this is an enduring issue which will certainly be with us, I believe, for our professional lifetime.”

Younger added that increased cooperation between agencies and improvements in the way governments tackled terror were “doing a great deal to mitigate the threat.”