Professor Anthony Finkelstein is leaving his job as MI5’s Chief Scientific Advisor. In an interview with the BBC, he gives his take on how rapidly evolving technology impacts on life in the security services. And what the UK needs to do to stay safe going into the future.

How is spy tech changing?

One of the most interesting points made in this interview is one that will resonate with all true innovators.

Gordon Corera, the BBC’s Security correspondent and author of this piece, writes: “Prof Finkelstein spent time with front-line investigators and intelligence officers around the UK and abroad, listening to what problems needed solving.”

This is not a Q, “look what fancy gadget we’ve made you this time, James” approach. Their R&D is clearly rooted in resolving real issues for real security operatives. They seek to solve their actual, real life problems.

Of course, Professor Finkelstein is bound by the official secrets act and the vast majority of work is completely classified. But he does give two examples that are interesting and may be similar to your R&D projects.

Artificial simulated environment

The UK company Improbable has led the work in this area. They create simulated environments so that security operatives can play out different scenarios artificially. This information is then used to maximise MI5 staff positioning around terrorist and spy subjects in the real physical environment.  It’s a really invaluable tool, given that staff resources are finite and adversaries only increase in number.

Behaviour manipulation of enemies

This means using technology to change how adversaries behave in order to make it easier to gather intelligence. For example, Australian security services and the FBI jointly created a messaging app called ANOM. They conned globally known criminals into using it, which allowed them to spy on all their internal communications and arrest them when enough evidence had been gathered.

What does the UK need to do to keep up with international R&D innovations?

Professor Finkelstein outlines three main “challenges” to the UK’s place at the forefront of spy technology.

  1. The speed of change – and how the constant change affects security operations
  2. “The focus for technological leadership is moving eastwards”
  3. “It’s a domain in which power is contested and which defines a state’s capability.” Science and technology R&D is now a global competition.

In order to stay ahead, and stay safe, the UK must match the pace of other countries. The article lists the areas of “major research focus” as “Artificial intelligence…robotics, drone detection and quantum computing… Prof Finkelstein particularly picks out work on ways to analyse people’s data while limiting the intrusion into their privacy.”

Perhaps these are areas of your own R&D focus. Can whatever you’re working on translate into a tool for the security services? Maybe there’s a possible government contract in it, as well as your R&D tax relief!

Why is it important for the UK to keep up with other countries’ R&D?

An important, if obvious, question – answered succinctly by Professor Finkelstein: “If you don’t have that edge… your adversaries are able to apply superior technology against you and they place your national security at risk.”

Jamie Smith