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Laurie Clarke


New MI5 director wants to tap UK tech sector for AI expertise

MI5’s newly appointed director general, Ken McCallum, has signalled an interest in working more closely with the private sector in harnessing artificial intelligence to help combat hostile state and terrorist activity.

MI5 reportedly no longer believes it has the in-house talent to develop what it needs in areas such as artificial intelligence and data analysis, and McCallum has expressed a desire to partner with technology companies to better exploit cutting edge tech.

This echoes the line of outgoing director Sir Andrew Parker, who recently said that the biggest challenge for the security service was technology. In January, he told the Financial Times that addressing technology would require a top-to-bottom examination of MI5’s structures, a redefinition of its relationship with the private sector and a shift to targeted monitoring of terror suspects “in real time”. 

He also said that the next step by MI5 is to use machine learning to extract useful intelligence from vast datasets held by the private sector, “because of our need to be able to make sense of the data lives of thousands of people in as near to real time as we can get to”.

The Treasury has already established a security investment fund so that the UK intelligence agencies can nurture start-ups developing in-demand tools.

McCallum is expected to continue to beat the anti-encryption drum that was banged so resoundingly by the outgoing director general Sir Andrew Parker – a view that home secretary Priti Patel also extols. Parker bemoaned the rise of encrypted messaging services and online spaces earlier this year, telling ITV: 

“I say to the [tech] companies: Can you please use the brilliant technologists you’ve got to answer this question, which is: Can you provide end-to-end encryption but on an exceptional basis – exceptional basis – where there is a legal warrant and a compelling case to do it, provide access to stop the most serious forms of harm happening?”

Around ten years ago, McCallum was responsible for MI5’s cyber activities. More recently as deputy director general, he was in charge of the agency’s operational work during a period where there were terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal.