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MI6 is expanding its cyber directorate to adapt to a new era of espionage, chief reveals

MI6 is adapting to the rise of  “fourth generation espionage” by hiring a new cohort of skilled tech specialists, the head of the intelligence agency has announced.

Speaking at St Andrews University last night, Alex Younger revealed that the agency’s “cyber” directorate was growing faster than any other as it contends with a new era of hybrid warfare.

“The most profound consequence of the technological challenge is a human one,” he said. “We are determined, of course, to attract people with an even higher level of technical skill to join our ranks, in the best traditions of Q.”

“But my organisation will need to adapt even faster if it is to thrive in the future. And that will require people with new perspectives, capable of harnessing their creativity in ways that we can’t yet even imagine.”

The veteran spy, who revealed his first posting was to the Western Balkans in the mid-1990s, said that the key threats to the UK are posed by terrorists and those “nation states operating in the grey spaces of the hybrid era”.

Younger cited the Salisbury attack as “one of the most egregious examples” of adversaries who “regard themselves as being in a state of perpetual confrontation with us”. He referenced the NotPetya attack on Ukrainian infrastructure, also attributed to Russia, as another example of the way in which the threat landscape is changing.

But Younger added that “even as the Russian state seeks to destabilise us, we do not seek to destabilise Russia. We do not seek an escalation. If we see a change in Russian behaviour, we will respond positively. But we will be implacable in defence of our people and our vital interests.”

In addition to growing the cyber directorate and transforming Q-branch, the intelligence agency has launched a partnership with the tech sector and academic community through the “National Security Strategic Investment Fund”. Younger said the arrangement offered “the private and academic community the role we need and they deserve”.

Senior officials at MI6’s sister agency GCHQ have spoken publicly in the past about the struggles they face in retaining top cyber security staff. The agency’s then director, Iain Lobban, said in 2011 that it was suffering a brain drain to technology companies who could pay up to three times more for equivalent positions.

Commenting on “what causes me to lose most sleep at night”, Younger said “the biggest risk that I see is a failure to make full use of the amazing talent in our organisation and in our country at large. As the leadership of MI6 we are determined not to let that happen.”

“In the cyber age, newcomers will often be better equipped to solve problems than those, like me, steeped in experience can be. If you join us, you will be trusted to use your talents.”

He attempted to dissuade potential applicants of the idea that the agency only wants a “certain type” to join its ranks. “If you think you can spot an MI6 officer, you are mistaken. It doesn’t matter where you are from. If you want to make a difference and you think you might have what it takes, then the chances are that you do have what it takes, and we hope you will step forward.”