Commanding advanced technology will be crucial in the struggle for domination between world powers, the head of Britain's MI6 has said.
In a rare public interview, Richard Moore suggested that those countries which have the most advanced smart technology would dominate world affairs.
The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, argued that Britain had to quickly clear security on companies or it risked receiving cutting-edge technology “18 months out of date”.
Speaking to the BBC before a keynote speech in London on Tuesday, Mr Moore, 58, was questioned on a broad range of issues, including Afghanistan, China, Russia and artificial intelligence.
While Western powers still have advantages, he warned that China was using its economic and technological power to wield influence.
“I think that, in the contest for influence and power through the 21st century, those who command the key technologies will have an advantage.”
Western countries are faced with technological threats from countries such as China, which hack other peoples’ advances, and the UK foreign intelligence service had to “stay before that curve” by collaborating with outsiders.
“We have traditionally done an awful lot in-house but increasingly we are going to have to work with the tech sector to be able to tap into their extraordinary abilities,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. “In order to do that, we are going to have to be a bit more open about who we are.”
In his first live broadcast interview since becoming MI6 chief last year, Mr Moore, known as “C” in government, said it was necessary “from time to time, judiciously”, to discuss what his service does, as well as the “challenges we face and how we need to change to meet those challenges.”
He admitted that MI6 has continued to recruit and run “well-placed sources” overseas to provide intelligence “which allows our leaders to try and navigate this contested, complex, difficult world”.
With its unicorn companies and scientific advances, he said that Britain was well placed with the “entrepreneurial animal spirit” of a free society, that gives people the opportunity to explore new ideas, unlike authoritarian regimes.
While he did not want an “adversarial relationship” with Beijing, Mr Moore accused it of using “debt traps and data traps” to wield influence over countries and people.
The “debt trap” of making massive national loans had allowed China to be given the use of ports — which could be used as naval bases — in countries which are unable to repay debts. Beijing has naval bases in Karachi, Pakistan and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Mr Moore explained that data traps resulted from a hostile state gaining access to “really critical data about your society” which over time would “erode your sovereignty”. Britain is actively defending against such attacks.
He said China’s artificial intelligence capabilities allowed it to “harvest data from around the world”.
He refused to accept there had been a serious intelligence failure over the Taliban’s rapid seizure of Afghanistan. But he admitted that there was no “soft soaping” that their victory was a “morale boost for extremists around the world”.
Mr Moore highlighted the “chronic problem” with Russia and Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin refusing to recognise Kiev’s right to be an independent state.
But he warned Moscow — which continues to amass troops on the border — against invasion, as it would receive “very careful signalling” on the “price that they would have to pay if they intervened, as they did in 2014”.
The MI6 chief, who has extensive experience in the Foreign Office, including as ambassador to Turkey, admitted he “did some skulking” while operating as a MI6 officer. Mr Moore has served in Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan and Malaysia.
Traditionally, it has been understood that every letter or order written by “C” has been in green ink. Mr Moore confirmed this, adding that all his computer correspondence is also in green font.
He lamented, however, that his official car was not a James Bond-style Aston Martin.