Future of intel will change with cyber, former MI5 head says

Dame Stella Rimington spoke at a security conference in Abu Dhabi this week

The cyber-world has created a new era for intelligence services as they are increasingly growing in importance in a country’s defence, according to a former director at the British intelligence service MI5.

Dame Stella Rimington, who was speaking at the RSA security conference in Abu Dhabi this week, spoke of the transformation in the intelligence world since she served in the field.

“I do feel that they have a really difficult job to do," she said. “And as I look to the future, I wonder what is the future of security and intelligence now. It seems to me that terrorism is going to go on I’m afraid for at least another generation because it’s proved so successful in drawing issues to the public’s attention and I think rather than the grand scale organised operations that we were facing with the IRA particularly in the earlier days, we’re going to be facing more and more individual, home-grown sponsored got-off-the-internet sort of ideas that our intelligence services are finding it so very very difficult to combat.”

She said espionage would go on. “Countries are going to want to find out what other countries’ secrets are and to try and undermine countries they regard as their enemies,” Dame Rimington said. “But rather than doing it in the old way with intelligence officers going around cities trying to find out secrets, they’re going to be doing it in cyber-space. It seems to me now that it is far more effective if you want to try and undermine a nation to do cyber-space attacks to hack, deny services or to put out fake news, or whatever the Russians are being accused of having done in the United States - that seems to be far more effective than burying the place with intelligence officers.”


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Although there would still be intelligence officers, she said the future for intel services would change. “I wonder sometimes whether maybe in the future our intelligence services will be regarded as a far more important part of a country’s defence than our military,” she said. “And I wonder if I came back in 50 years, if the intelligence services were bigger and better resourced than the army, navy and air force.”

When she was first appointed to her position, Dame Rimington struggled as a female in the field. “When I was faced with the British tabloid press, as I’m a female, I knew it would be a sensationalist announcement,” she said. “This is because they are somewhat old-fashioned and their view of who should be the head of our intelligence services was obviously somebody like James Bond or if not, whoever it is, it should be a man and not a female with two children. So they dumped me into that box that they keep for uppity women and the box is the kitchen.”

She experienced headlines such as “housewife superspy” and “mother-of-two gets tough with terrorists” which went on for a while. The press soon found out through her neighbours where she lived, forcing her to move when they posted a photograph of her house on the front page. “One of our local papers published a story from one of our neighbours complaining that my helicopters ceaselessly roaming overhead were keeping her family awake,” she said. “The helicopters had nothing to do with me at all, they were the police monitoring the Arsenal football ground which was just up the road. So in the end we had to leave the house and find somewhere to live, myself, my daughter and the dog.”

Following her move, her and her colleagues managed to formulate an openness strategy with the press. “We could talk about what we do, the laws that govern what we do but we can’t talk about individual operations or sources,” she said. “The relationship got much better. I gave a lecture on BBC on where the line is between security and democracy back in 1996 and people are talking about it even more now so by creating our own openness strategy, we managed to get the better of some of this nonsense.”