GCHQ Director: UK faces ‘moment of reckoning’ over key technologies

Speaking at Imperial, GCHQ chief Jeremy Fleming highlighted the UK’s unique role leading the next phase of the global digital revolution.

Delivering the Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture at Imperial’s Institute for Security Science and Technology, Fleming warned of the geopolitical challenges facing the UK. Key technologies in cyberspace risk being shaped by “players who don’t share our values or follow the rules,” as fundamental changes in the tech environment influence our economy and society, he said.

“The UK really is a global cyber power – a big animal in the digital world. But historic strength does not mean we can assume we will be in the future,” Fleming said during the lecture ‘A World of Possibilities: leading the way in cyber and technology.

“In the real world, scientific consensus agrees we face a climate emergency. In the digital environment, we face another existential threat to our way of life as the old order is replaced by players who don’t share our values or follow the rules. To stay relevant, the UK and like-minded allies are recognising that the landscape is shifting and therefore, there is a pressing need to act.”

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Fleming identified three key challenges in the control for key technologies:

  • China proposing a redesign of the internet which facilitates government control. So far, they have not garnered sufficient support and the proposals have been rejected. There have also been concerted campaigns to dominate international Standards developing organisations, where technical protocols and processes are approved and deployed.
  • Determined efforts to use issues of common concern – like climate change – to gain footholds in new tech markets; smart cities being a case in point. Though smart cities promise to make urban areas more efficient and less polluting, there is the potential of risk through unchecked technology or data collection in ways that go against the interests and values of open, democratic societies.
  • Some big Western companies are acting in a supra-national way. Their size and global influence means in effect they can unilaterally make the rules determining how countries can lawfully acquire data and even how contact tracing during this pandemic can be supported by technology.

Of these challenges, Fleming said: “Without action it is likely that key technologies we will rely on for the future prosperity and security of the UK will be controlled and dominated by our adversaries. We are now facing a moment of reckoning.

“The internet was designed with access rather than security in mind. That’s what makes it so ubiquitous, but the flip side is that we have built an ecosystem that is too vulnerable to compromise by criminals and states.

“And, in the face of rapid change, governments have been too slow to grasp the implications of new technologies. Companies, not Governments, have rightly led the way. But their investment in shaping future standards has favoured their commercial interests, and those don’t always align with the interests of ordinary citizens.”

“Pulling up the draw-bridge is not an option”

The internet was designed with access rather than security in mind…we have built an ecosystem that is too vulnerable to compromise by criminals and states. Jeremy Fleming Director, GCHQ

Referring to the UK Government’s Integrated Review, which placed science and technology at the centre of future security and defence policy, Fleming stated that global challenges like climate change and pandemics demand global responses: “Pulling up the draw-bridge is not an option. Overseas investment and global digital trade are both essential and desirable.”

Ensuring that the UK maintains its unique role in the next phase of the global digital revolution will rely on investment in skills and technology:

  • An emphasis on openness as a source of prosperity
  • A more robust position on security and resilience
  • A renewed commitment to the UK as a force for good in the world
  • An increased determination to seek multilateral solutions to challenges like climate change
  • Deepening our relationships with allies and partners around the world, as well as moving more swiftly and with greater agility

This is about promoting the prosperity of nations, not just our own, constantly reinforcing the rule of law, shared ethics, and common good. Jeremy Fleming Director, GCHQ

In the future, Fleming said, the UK will be seen as a country that supports academia and industry to play their part. Careers in cyber and technology will be within reach to all and we will welcome the next generation of talent from every corner of the four nations of the UK.

He added: “If we get it right, new policies, informed by deep expertise, will influence and shape markets – protecting and growing the most critical technologies. Government will create new markets, focusing investment on the sectors and technologies that are best for the UK. The country will support the growth of a diverse set of companies that can provide these technologies, and that continue to work in accordance with our values. We will work with other like-minded nations to pool resources and knowledge to target the global ‘moon-shots’.

“All of this together will create a strategic advantage the UK and allies need to meet the challenge of this age. This is about promoting the prosperity of nations, not just our own, constantly reinforcing the rule of law, shared ethics, and common good.”

Image: GCHQ

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