In an annual overview of threats facing the U.K., MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said that hostile nation states should be met with as strong a response as terrorist groups. Such activity can manifest in a variety of ways, including physical attacks such as the Salisbury nerve agent incident, cyber attacks, espionage, and targeted misinformation.
“Disruptive cyber-attacks such as ransomware can bring down everything from national institutions to your local hospital,” McCallum said. “The consequences range from frustration and inconvenience, through loss of earnings, potentially up to loss of life, such as in cases where healthcare services are affected. If it ever was, cyber is no longer some abstract contest between hackers in it for the thrill or between states jockeying position in some specialised domain; in the 2020s, cyber consistently bites on our everyday lives.”
He also warned that espionage is happening at scale, with universities, researchers and businesses having their discoveries stolen or copied. “Given half a chance, hostile actors will short-circuit years of patient British research or investment.”
“If you are working in a high-tech business; or engaged in cutting-edge scientific research; or exporting into certain markets, you will be of interest – more interest than you might think – to foreign spies. You don’t have to be scared; but be switched on.”
The spreading of inaccurate or distorted information is another tool in hostile states’ arsenals. “Most misinformation is not deliberate disinformation carefully crafted by foreign spies. But some of it is,” warned McCallum. “Some foreign states invest in capabilities to influence discourse in other countries; and they wouldn’t be doing so if they didn’t believe they were getting some benefit. So there is a focused role for organizations like mine to detect and call out any particularly damaging foreign-generated disinformation. But the larger national response must be to grow our collective resilience to the wider seas of misinformation: for each of us to be alert to the risks, to consume information intelligently, and to enjoy a rigorous, independent, plural media.
“For as long as it’s cheap and easy for hostile actors to try to access U.K. data; or to cultivate initially-unwitting individuals here; or to spread false, divisive information – they are bound to keep doing so. The U.K.’s response cannot be to hide under our beds, or refuse to engage with the world. Just like with terrorism, our response has to be proportionate and on twin tracks. First, there’s the operational response: MI5, working hand-in-glove with the people you’d expect in MI6, GCHQ, Defence, policing, and with our international allies, to go after the sources of the threat and reduce how much threat is coming at us. The second track is where we all have a part to play: the protective effort, making ourselves a harder target. We must, over time, build the same public awareness and resilience to state threats that we have done over the years on terrorism.”
McCallum focused on the threats and response but had no qualms in naming Russia, China and Iran as the source actors. “In all three cases these national security contests are taking place alongside wider U.K. engagement with those nations. Which is at it should be. We’ve just got to be pragmatic and robust about those places where we encounter damaging activity.”
The MI5 chief said U.K. resilience could be boosted by refreshing its State Threats legislation. The Official Secrets Act 1911 now 110 years old remains a “cornerstone of our espionage legislation” but is “hugely out of date”, McCallum said.
“The forthcoming State Threats Bill, currently out to consultation, is so important. Today, it is not a criminal offense to be an undeclared foreign intelligence agent in the U.K. Likewise, it is not currently illegal to be in a key position of influence in the U.K. and be secretly in the pay of a foreign state. That can’t be right. To tackle modern interference, we need modern powers.”
MI5 took on lead responsibility for Extreme Right Wing terrorism just over a year ago. Of the 29 late-stage attack plots disrupted over the last four years, 10 have been Extreme Right Wing. And McCallum said MI5 is progressively finding more indicators of potential threat.
“This threat has some challenging characteristics: a high prevalence of teenagers, including young teenagers where the authorities’ response clearly has to blend child protection with protecting communities. Frequently, obsessive interest in weaponry, presenting difficult risk management choices even when it’s not clear whether the weaponry is directly linked to extremist intent. And always, always, the online environment – with thousands exchanging hate-filled rhetoric or claiming violent intentions to each other in extremist echo chambers – leaving us and the police to try to determine which individuals amongst those thousands might actually mobilize towards violence. This needs new expertise, new sources, new methods.”
Racism and hate speech has become a growing problem in the U.K. with recent high-profile attacks against England soccer players hitting the headlines and shocking most members of society. Social media offers not only a platform for people to air their vile opinions, it provides them with a fanbase of like-minded individuals. Those who may be seeking acceptance and validation in their offline lives can find it in the form of a social media “like”. This then bolsters the original poster to cater for his or her followers with more racist posts, some of which may incite or directly lead to physical attacks. The sheer prevalence of such posts today makes racism more common and from there it is a small step for some to consider it more acceptable. What social media no longer affords however is a hiding place. Some of the people responsible for the verbal attacks against the soccer players have already been traced by law enforcement and a change to legislation could also see such individuals banned from soccer matches and their online worlds.
Alongside Extreme Right Wing terrorism, Islamist Extremist terrorism remains MI5’s largest operational mission. “The shape and scale of what we face in the UK continues to be heavily influenced by events upstream in theatres of conflict, and how they are presented online,” McCallum said.
“Over the last decade the overseas location exerting greatest influence on the U.K. threat has been – and remains – Syria, with over 950 U.K.-linked extremists getting there… and Islamic State reaching back here with slick English-language online propaganda. 2021’s Islamic State is nowhere near the force that 2015’s was: that is the result of sustained pressure and hard-won progress by a broad international coalition. But much counterterrorism remains to be done.”
MI5 and its partners are also working to tackle re-emerging extremist threats in Africa, principally Somalia. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, twenty years of dedicated effort have had a profound effect. “The Al Qaeda terrorist infrastructure we faced in 2001 is long since gone. I want to take this moment to pay tribute to the military colleagues whose heroism and sacrifice achieved those vital gains. As NATO and U.S. forces now withdraw, terrorists will seek to take advantage of opportunities – including propaganda opportunities – to rebuild. For the U.S. and for ourselves, the counterterrorist task will transition. As we seek to illuminate potential threats to take disruptive action, we will have neither the advantages nor the risks of having our own forces on the ground. This form of counterterrorism is not new to us – it’s how we’ve always operated in Somalia, for instance; but from that experience we know it is challenging.”
In his speech, McCallum set out some of the action underway by MI5 and its partners, such as the new joint counterterrorism center and called for tech companies to play their part in protecting citizens in the U.K. and beyond. He highlighted the issue of encryption, inviting tech companies to engage seriously with governments – or with him personally – on the necessity of designing in public safety alongside designing in privacy.
“Over the last decade, U.K. governments have had constructive discussions with tech companies on the removal of harmful content from their platforms, and the companies have taken important steps, to which I gladly pay tribute. Encryption should not be falsely presented as binary privacy or safety: the public needs the tech companies to find solutions which both maintain users’ privacy and support everyone’s safety. That means lawful access, on an exceptional warranted basis, to the content of the tiny minority of people who are cynically using the tech platforms to harm the rest of us. These tech companies are brilliant at what they do; it seems to me they have solved harder problems, when they really want to.”
Perhaps the biggest threat facing the U.K. and other nations, is the variety of threats that have to be prevented and responded to on a constant basis. As McCallum said in his closing remarks, “the variety of what we face is huge: from sophisticated nation states, drawing on the entire apparatus of government to undermine our security; through to misguided teenagers, espousing a warped and racist ideology, bent on killing those different to them.”