A former British Army officer, Younger joined MI6 – officially known as the Secret Intelligence Service – in 1991. He worked undercover as a diplomat in Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan before becoming chief (“C”) of MI6 in 2014. He served as C for six years until 2020, becoming the longest-serving person to hold the post.
Younger shared stories and insights on his time as a spymaster and had some advice for organisations tackling evolving cyber threats. These were the key talking points from his conversation with Recorded Future co-founder and chief executive Christopher Ahlberg.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
With the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die, in cinemas, questions about Ian Fleming’s fictional spy universe were unavoidable. Younger highlighted the “spooky resemblance” between himself and British actor Ralph Fiennes, who plays James Bond’s MI6 boss known as “M”.
- “I went to see (Ralph Fiennes) on the set. He’s a great actor and as he spoke to me, he became more like me. It was really terrifying.”
- “The Bond thing – it’s great! It’s made us more famous than Pepsi. The only thing that would shock people about my former service is that we are a lot smaller than people think.”
- “If I were to tell you that we look for emotional intelligence, teamwork and willingness to learn, you’ve got to admit James Bond doesn’t really leap off the page at that stage.”
‘Data shines light into the cracks where we used to operate, but it casts new shadows’
Intelligence sources come in three varieties: human intelligence (HUMINT) from classic James Bond and John LeCarré activities; signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathered from electronic surveillance and open-source intelligence (OSINT) taken from freely shared data on the Internet.
- “The way that I operated 30 years ago as an intelligence officer is entirely obsolete. (Today) it would be revealed with a Google search. It’s absolutely not fit for purpose.”
- “The most important thing is that open source is there as a means to collect insights. Which is not only significantly cheaper but doesn’t involve any risk and crucially can be immediately used by a political master without fear of damage to any sources and methods.”
- “I think historically, western governments to some extent fetishise secret stuff and use open source to authenticate what they’ve found out. It should be exactly the other way round: the predominant thrust of our work should be to harvest everything we can from open source which is cheap and low risk and use national security means to validate the bits that really have to be validated.”
- “Data shines light into the cracks where we used to operate, but it casts new shadows.”
Emerging cyber threats
Online bad guys are known as “threat actors” by the cybersecurity industry and fall into distinct groups such as hoodie-clad “script kiddies” bringing down online services for bragging rights and advanced persistent threats such as state-sponsored activities and criminal gangs.
- “We haven’t seen any serious evidence of terrorists seeking to weaponise this.”
- “I would speculate that ultimately terrorism is a political act and there is a significant visual part to what they do. The violence is designed to shock and disgust and horrify in order to precipitate the reaction that they seek to provoke.”
- “I’m much more worried by the advent of what we call ‘hybrid warfare’ and the reality that wars of the future will be fought without being declared and without knowing potentially who we’re fighting.”
‘Individuals can change the course of history’
With a three-decade career in state-sponsored espionage, who better than Younger to tell us about life as a spy?
- “People think of spies as cynical, rather dry people. We’re basically romantics because we’re adventurers. We believe that individuals can change the course of history and we see that happen.”
- “I absolutely miss being a spy; it was my vocation. It’s a whole social ecosystem and the people who are drawn to that world are interested in other people and want to make a difference. And they’re inherently stimulating people to have around.”
It’s not machine versus man
Computers are a vital tool in our information age but according to Younger, let’s not forget who is really pulling the strings.
- “Network defence is not predominantly a technology issue. It’s not computers attacking us; it’s humans.”
Founded in 2009, Recorded Future provides intelligence for enterprise security by combining automated data collection and analytics with human analysis. The company’s virtual Predict 21 conference ends on 13 October.