Intelligence agencies at loggerheads with cyber criminals

UK intelligence agencies are engaged in a “technology arms race” with cyber criminals and other “malicious actors”, according to MI6 chief Alex Younger.

Younger made his first public comments since taking over last year as chief of MI6 – or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – to an invited audience in London and said that many offenders were exploiting internet technology to put agents at risk.

The use of the internet and big data has aided intelligence agencies and secret services in sharpening some human characteristics of cyber criminals.

“Using data appropriately and proportionately offers us a priceless opportunity to be even more deliberate and targeted in what we so and so to be better at protecting our agents and this country,” Younger said.

However, he said that technology has also created new, more sophisticated vulnerabilities which their opponents were able to take advantage of: “The bad news is that the same technology in opposition hands - an opposition often unconstrained by consideration of ethics and law - allows them to see what we are doing and to put our people and agents at risk.

“So we find ourselves in a technology arms race. Contrary to myth, human intelligence operations are not an alternative to technical operations – the two are interdependent and set to become more so.”

The comments were made a few hours after Europol’s chief executive Rob Wainwright warned that encryption software used on mobile phones and in apps is the biggest challenge for security agencies tackling terrorism, as E&T reported.

The drive by tech companies to use end-to-end encryption has accelerated since former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the intelligence agencies in the US and UK were ‘bulk monitoring’ the emails of innocent people.

“We are disappointed by the position taken by these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people that are abusing the internet,” Wainwright said.

Earlier this month, Google executive chairman Erick Schmidt said that tech firms will win ‘the encryption battle’. “We’ve taken a very tough line in the industry over this issue and I think we will win this one, at least in America,” Schmidt said during his speech to a Washington think-tank.

Research from a recent Pew survey released this month showed that the revelations of the mass government surveillance programmes have definitely impacted the way certain segments of the American population view their privacy now, although this has not yet translated into behaviours.

Approximately one-third of respondents (34 per cent) have actually changed their ways to protect their privacy, while 25 per cent reported that they have modified the way they use different technologies “a great deal” or “somewhat”.

“Those most likely to shield their information from the government are those who have heard a lot about surveillance programmes and who are less confident the programmes are in the public interest,” the survey concluded.

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