GCHQ Director: The UK and Allies Must Counter “Existential Threat” to the Digital Environment

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The UK must work with other liberal democracies to ensure the internet and emerging digital technologies remain free and open. This is the view of Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, who gave the 2021 Vincent Briscoe lecture for the Institute for Security Science and Technology at Imperial College London.

Fleming began by noting the increasingly prominent role of technology in all areas of society, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in the past year. While technological advancements have had enormous benefits, improving interconnectivity and convenience, they have also provided more opportunities for malicious actors to cause harm. “We must acknowledge that our adversaries benefit too. They exploit the tools that were meant to bring society together to instead create discord,” he said. “They misuse that power to fuel division, exploit vulnerable people and peddle extreme views.”

Overall, Fleming believes the UK has already adapted very well to this transformation, which he compared to a seismic environmental event, such as an ice age. He outlined: “We are world leaders in cyber-defense through the NCSC, the National Cyber Force is transforming the UK’s cyber capabilities to disrupt adversaries through cyber-space, we have a strong tech sector and world class universities training the next generation in science and tech.”

Despite all this, the UK must not rest on its laurels and shouldn’t “assume we will be so in the future.”

This is the result of the rise of other nations whose values differ from our own, centered around authoritarianism and control—in particular Russia and China. These nations have become increasingly active in the cyber-space over recent years, as highlighted by the recent SolarWinds attacks, which were believed to be perpetrated by Russian state-backed actors.  

While Fleming described Russia as currently the “most acute threat” to the UK’s security, the long-term danger comes from China, which is taking steps to shape and control the digital environment, imposing its very different values in the process. “In the digital environment, we face an 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,” he outlined.

Fleming said that China is seeking to “control the global operating system” and is the implementer of emerging technologies that are “changing the digital environment.”

He added: “States that do not share our values will build their own illiberal values into the standards and technology upon which we may become reliant.” This could ultimately mean that “everyone is going to be facing a very difficult future.”

Urgent action is therefore required to counter this trend, and collaboration between like-minded liberal nations is a crucial element in developing systems outside of the control of countries such as China. Fleming said the UK should be at the heart of this and, along with its allies, needs to “use technology to deliver for open societies across the world and those who aspire to join them.”

This requires a multi-faceted approach, including continuing to enhance cybersecurity capabilities and growing the digital skills base in these societies.

Concluding, Fleming said that we need to create “a strategic advantage for the UK and our allies, based on the rule of law, shared ethics and common good.”

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