#InfosecurityEurope2022: Lessons Learned from Career on the Security Front Line

In her keynote address on day two of Infosecurity Europe 2022, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller told delegates that widespread use of encryption has created challenges. But this is balanced, to a degree, by counter-intelligence agencies’ access to social media.

“When I started [at MI5] the level of encryption available to citizens now was confined to governments,” she said. “So getting on top of communications was easier. But now we have access to mass communications.”

This is just one shift that Baroness Manningham-Buller has witnessed during her career in the security service. She joined MI5 aged 24, at a time when women played a “subsidiary” role. “We were not allowed to do anything dangerous and were not to be trusted on our own,” she recalled. “Luckily that changed.” 

Baroness Manningham-Buller went on to serve as deputy director of MI5, a post she held during the 9-11 terrorist attacks. She was appointed as head of the service in 2002.

As head of the service, Baroness Manningham-Buller saw MI5’s budget double and the organization grow significantly in size, to deal with the growing threats of extremism and terrorism.

She also led the organization through changes in the way it does business, and especially, how it recruits personnel.

“How can we do our job properly if we only reflect part of the population? Why would we not wish to get the best people from across the spectrum? In the 1990s we did a lot of work with the ethnicity of the population [of MI5] and unscrambled the rules around sexuality,” she said. Around one in four MI5 staff are now from a non-white background.

Today’s security service needs to reflect the communities it serves, and this also brings tactical advantages in the field, she noted. Adversaries still expect MI5 operators to look like (James Bond actor) Daniel Craig. “Now if you walk through the halls of MI5, you see a much greater range of people, and it is much better for it,” she said. This is even though Baroness Manningham-Buller concedes that being female was “a great help debriefing Russian defectors” during the Cold War.

But, even as MI5 has adapted, one attribute has not changed: the ability to deal with uncertainty. This is a skill that applies equally to infosecurity professionals. “We prepare people, through exercises, for uncertainty. The key is to be flexible, agile and open minded,” she said.

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