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Western world faces ‘moment of reckoning’ on control of critical technologies

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Technologies vital for the UK’s security and prosperity will no longer be shaped and controlled by the UK and its allies without action, the director of GCHQ will state in a speech.

Jeremy Fleming, who heads the intelligence agency, is due to give this year’s Imperial College Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture; a text of his speech was released ahead of delivery. He will say that while the UK is a “big animal in the digital world” its historic leadership in technology cannot be taken for granted to continue, particularly as the rules of the game change in ways that states cannot always control.

If left unchecked, foreign adversaries such as China and Russia will assume leadership in the design, security, and regulation of the internet and emerging technologies. GCHQ has reason to believe that China could within decades dominate the key technologies of the 21st century, particularly AI, synthetic biology, and genetics, he will say.

“Cyber security is an increasingly strategic issue that needs a whole nation approach,” Fleming will say. “The rules are changing in ways not always controlled by government. And without action it is increasingly clear that the key technologies on which we will rely for our future prosperity and security won’t be shaped and controlled by the West.

“We are now facing a moment of reckoning. In the natural world, during a period of rapid change, the only option is to adapt. And it’s the same for us.”

Technology companies have found themselves as conduits of bubbling West-East tensions, with US President Joe Biden retaining a firm line against Chinese technology companies which the US government states are national security threats, such as Huawei, ZTE, and Dahua. In February, Biden laid out plans to establish China-free supply chains for semiconductors, EV batteries, and other critical technologies, through massive investments in these sectors.

Fleming will say that the UK’s historic influence in critical technology sectors must be constantly reinvented: “Today, we can be proud of innovations in everything from AI to biosciences and beyond. As a country, we need to be using all the levers and tools at our disposal to shape and grow key technologies and markets.”

“We must do that in a way that helps protect the nation and open society. And that means becoming better at using the power of the state to both foster and protect brilliant developments in technology.”

Fleming will build on the government’s Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy, arguing that the UK must keep up to speed by developing sovereign technologies in key areas like quantum technology (including in quantum cryptography to protect sensitive information), work with its allies to bolster cyber defences, and develop domestic cyber skills. He also called for greater fostering of the right market conditions to enable innovation, and to ensure a diversity of supply in a broader set of technologies.

Speaking to E&T, MI6’s former information security lead Nicholas Lloyd commented that US adversaries are focusing on alternatives to conventional military strength to compete, such as offensive cyber. It is harder to hold states responsible for cyber aggression than acts of conventional military aggression.

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