According to Jeremy Fleming, there is a danger that the West can no longer form key technologies on which we depend.
“If we’re going to keep up, we have to keep improving our strategy,” he said of China’s growing threat.
He went on to say that “smart cities,” which would collect vast volumes of data, are only one example.
“The danger is that the technology will be applied in such a way that we won’t be able to guarantee its security,” he cautioned.
The UK is a “huge beast” in terms of technology, but “we can’t take that for granted,” the GCHQ director cautioned, adding that now was the time to determine whether or not to continue to develop and contend with our adversaries.
Mr. Fleming was speaking ahead of this year’s Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture at Imperial College and in the aftermath of the Integrated Review, which placed science and technology at the forefront of future security and defence policy.
Lessons Learned from 5G
The threat posed by China is top of mind for intelligence chiefs in Western countries, particularly when it comes to technology.
“The danger, as I see it today,” he told the BBC, “is that we lose control of the norms that form our technological climate.”
“The aspects of our technology that ensure that our liberal Western democratic values are baked in.”
- Mr. Fleming believes there are lessons to be learned from the controversy over Huawei’s role in the creation of a modern 5G telecoms infrastructure. It was granted a place in the UK at first, but was later removed due to US sanctions.
- The United Kingdom must benefit from Huawei’s 5G U-turn.
- China is being blamed by Microsoft for email cyber-attacks.
- Technology is becoming more central to UK defence.
However, there were worries that only a few other firms would be able to have the most up-to-date technology.
“The debate about 5G was really lost a decade ago, when Western nations opted not to invest in the underpinning infrastructures… and as a result, we simply didn’t have the options,” he said.
He said it was important to ensure that the UK made the long-term decisions it needed to ensure it had options in the future, so there would be less questions about dependence.
Fears of smart cities
The need to look forward led to an emphasis on smart cities.
These systems use a large number of sensors and cameras embedded in a city’s infrastructure to monitor everything from traffic to services like water and electricity.
However, it also ensures that massive quantities of data about people’s movements and activities can be obtained.
If done correctly, the GCHQ leader claims that this poses a “fantastic opportunity” to boost productivity and services.
However, he cautioned that it poses privacy and anonymity threats.
“If we don’t monitor the technology, if we don’t understand the security requirements to effectively enforce those, we’ll end up with an environment or technology ecosystem where data is used not just to navigate but also to track us.”
China is a major supplier of smart city technology, with local governments in the United Kingdom already buying cameras from Chinese firms.
Mr. Fleming stressed the importance of ensuring that all systems are not from the same source and understanding how data is processed.
He said there were only a few places where the UK would need full control of a technology, and that collaborating with allies would be critical in shaping international standards and defending the country in cyberspace.
The United Kingdom must invest in skills and creativity at home.
He stressed that the UK could not be “fatalistic,” and that it had a “very good track record” of dealing with technological challenges.