There is little doubt that changes in technology have occurred in some profound ways over the last fifty years. What has also changed however, and undoubtedly of more significance, is the rate of that change which has increased significantly even over the last five to ten years. In our view, the single most important factor in the intelligence agencies armoury and their successful prediction of exponential technological change, is measurement.
The sheer computational power available to us now is vast and the implications of a change of speed in this power will be influential on the intelligence gathering community, not in five years, but within the next two. A child in Mumbai, for example, now has greater access to data and cross-referencing power than even President Clinton had at his disposal. In effect the result is a democratisation or a means of levelling the playing field like nothing we have experienced before. With this in mind, as the Chief of MI6 has said, there will be two types of intelligence agencies in the near future. Those that understand and prepare for the exponential growth in certain technologies (such as AI, automated cars, 3D printing and robotics), and those who do not. If SIS and other allied agencies are going to be successful in combatting any form of terrorism or threat against our nation, it needs to stay ahead of the exponential curve.
An Intelligent Future
Possibly at nearly every point in human history one will have heard someone saying in some form or another that we are going through difficult times and that the decisions we make now will have a fundamental impact on future generations. The tudors, the victorians, the Chinese dynasties, mans' evolution, the Nazi's, Vietnam and the cold war, were all difficult times and frankly, what we face now is no different. Since the beginning, man has always been a species with a terrifying taste and predilection towards conflict and war. This is of course well known. What is less well known now however, is who our enemy actually is. For almost the first time in history, we cannot sit behind the front line and spy on our foe behind a well armoured infantry, or send a drone to 'take out' precise enemies with precise coordinates. Historically, wars are politically hugely important and make even the great political fund raisers pale into insignificance with the impact they can have on the popularity of the leadership at that moment in time. Patriotism sets aside political differences in favour of a national pride and feeds our inevitable desire to be part of the pack, and team up to fight our common enemy. These are of course all well known, tried and tested human attributes. War is a time of joining together, picking up the slack, backbone, defiance, justice and immense courage and a time where we tend to see the very best as well as the very worst of humanity. The effect can be significant and is instrumental in providing society, during post war recovery, with an identity and commonality we all desire.
But what if we fight a war where we do not see, or do not know who our enemy is? What happens to that human desire? Moreover, what happens to our identity? These are weighty topics indeed and somewhat outside of the scope of this analysis, however as we see the information rollercoaster flatten out borders and boundaries across the globe, are we also seeing a dilution in the national spirit and national identity which provides the very infrastructure of a well rounded, democratic and civilised world? In essence, without an actual enemy to fight, and without the benefits derived from that unity, are we being left feeling impotent? The absence of the enemy, it could be argued, therefore goes beyond just making the fight more difficult, it actually wears away the fabric of national consciousness and pride. So, for the first time in history, this is now happening and we are in somewhat unchartered waters looking for an enemy in a chaotic, 'pacman-esque' fashion which serves little to no purpose.
What we are left with now is a society disjointed and feeling left out, impotent and unable stand behind the aforementioned front line of 'infantry'. To put it plainly, the spies are by definition unseen and their work is unacknowledged and fighting an enemy who is on their doorstep for a second, but far away the next. There has always been an understandable buffer between the intelligence services and the general public i.e. the people it serves to protect. Of course that is understandable. This has always been the case. The difference in times gone by however, is that operating alongside secret intelligence was the traditional, visible, military machine of our armed forces or the political power of our leaders. That was enough to keep the 'average joe' happy and to make him or her feel they were 'doing their bit' for Queen and country. Not so now. What should actually happen now, if our experiences in the past are anything to go by, is to include the public in the fight as much as possible. Think about it. When there has been a war, what did the men do? They 'joined up' or joined the reserves. The women picked up the slack and made the bullets or built the ships. It was always the case, whether fifty years ago or five hundred years ago. So what happens now? We can hardy expect Jim the builder to down tools and head off to Vauxhall to join Section 6, or send our farmers to Langley to learn the CIA ropes. They are redundant, impotent and therefore we are being hit from TWO angles now. The fear and uncertainty of a new warrior, as well as the effects of a serious negative impact on morale.
Speaking as a UK citizen, not a member of the military or a member of an intelligence service, I can only take the repetitive advice from National Rail to remember the 'three S's' so far. Sure I can SEE it, sure I can SAY it, and yes I can SORT it, but where do I join the queue to fight Al and his friend Qaeda? It is that feeling of ineptitude and disillusionment that has to be managed in todays modern war if we are to keep the 'hearts and minds' ticking over. If we are to learn anything from history then there will be another catastrophic event on a much larger scale than witnessed before, which will act as a watershed and necessitate a different course of action for our intelligence services to take. In conjunction with our politicians or course. The checks and balances, whilst sometimes understandably criticised for their lack of checks and distinct lack of balance, are nonetheless there for a reason. In such a 'post watershed' world, should it happen, there will have to be an increased unity between Government and the Intelligence communities and the Military, but there will also have to be a method of including the people in the fight. Yes, of course, a battle can now be carried out by a teenager with a decent processor and internet speed, a couple of terra-bytes and a reasonable grasp of social media to effectively make any notion of using troops or physical assaults absolute nonsense. You only have to read the transcript of Alex Youngers' speech at the University of St Andrews in December 2018 to know that. The mind boggles at what the likes of Kim Philby et al would have made of a tweet or a poke, but it is safe to say both Facebook and Twitter are probably equally as reliable and trustworthy. I digress however.
If the Intelligence Services are to bend the exponential curve in their favour, these thoughts are critical in shaping how the future battles are likely to be fought. There is of course a familiar parallel with the use of propaganda and media utilisation to boost allied morale and dent enemy will, and in some ways the above arguments could well be simply a modern day manifestation. To a certain extent that is true. That doesn't mean it is now wrong to consider a hybrid version of that time tested weapon which has been used in wars through the centuries. Al Qaeda and IS and their various off-spring are doing the same thing as we speak, and one only need ask the Russians about their experiences in Afghanistan or US Army in Vietnam, to know how important winning the local hearts and minds through a well oiled propaganda machine can be. The point however is that whilst we acknowledge the importance of such methods, we are now in a different environment and cannot employ those same methods to utilise our population to assist us in defeating the enemy. That is something that together the intelligence services and governments will have to work on to find a modern day equivalent.
At the moment, thankfully, the 'virus' is contained, but if we have learnt anything we have to acknowledge that at some point it will not be. Maybe that is why Mr Younger and his teams are changing tact and becoming more vocal publicly and more inclusive in their use of the general public. If that is the case and this is simply the start of a well thought out campaign with a clear objective then it has to be the correct course of action. It is the way to go. If, however, there is a seismic event which creates that watershed moment, then the general public will have to be used in force and the governments' and intelligence agencies will come under extreme pressure. As we often hear people say, we do not hear about the successes of our secret intelligence services, whereas the failures become all too public and well known. It is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence. As time goes by and the threat of an event which sadly may well make 9-11 pale into insignificance becomes increasingly likely, in such a scenario, the pressure on SIS and allied intelligence agencies will become immense and public pressure will demand inclusion in some form or another. This is one likely consequence of the current trajectory of terrorism and although there are many more, it is something we need to plan for now.
At the very least, prepare a contingency so that the public, or selected sections of the public (call them 'representatives' of a Union of sorts), are given roles and appointed to feel as though they are contributing in some way. This is only a patch and will not work longer term, but it would be enough to buy time. Of course, anyone reading this, may be justified for asking if this is really important at all? The public have their place after all and we have a highly experienced intelligence machine, a splendid military and a well organised political structure. Surely Sir Humphrey and his civil servant friends would sneer at the very thought. The simple answer is that, in this writers view, history can often be used as an accurate indicator of future events. And if history has taught us anything, it is that a unified, well motivated army, is more often than not a highly successful one, even when faced with a new and uncertain enemy. To reiterate, it might be a coincidence that recent events have seen MI6 and MI5 align themselves more closely with the public. I suspect it is more than simply a marketing ploy designed to win some sort of political favour. Rather, it is more likely part of a move to include the public as mentioned above. The recent campaign to focus on the recruitment of ethnic minorities and women, the strategic advertising on Mumsnet for example, or the targeting of teen creative social media types, is probably an indication that this is more than just political. The fact that Mr Younger chose to deliver this speech at St Andrews is perhaps a slightly ironic nod to the old school to let them know all is well and the proverbial 'tap on the shoulder' method of recruitment is still alive and well. Baby steps yes, but steps nonetheless.