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The UK is a "big animal in the digital world" -- but won't be for long without sustained investment: GCHQ

"It will take effort, it will involve change, it needs investment."

The UK must make sustained investment into its technological capabilities if it is to remain a “big animal in the digital world”, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming has warned, saying the country and its democratic allies face “a moment of reckoning” as technology markets become “new areas of geopolitical competition”, amid a world in which the development of and access to technology are increasingly becoming “statecraft tools.”

Making the 2021 Vincent Briscoe Lecture for the Institute for Security, Science and Technology, Fleming – who has led GCHQ since April 2017 – described the “threat posed by Russia’s activity [as] like finding a vulnerability on a specific app on your phone; potentially serious, but you can probably use an alternative.  [But] China’s size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system.”

Pointing to “concerted campaigns to dominate international Standards developing organisations, where technical protocols and processes are designed and approved” Fleming added that “without action it is increasingly clear that the key technologies on which we will rely for our future prosperity and security won’t be shaped and controlled by the West”, in a striking direct call for investment and policy maker focus.

“A difficult space for governments…”

Striking a balance between allowing free markets to take their course, whilst nurturing and investing in “sovereign technologies” that allow the UK to retain “strategic technical advantage” is a challenging task, Jeremy Fleming acknowledged. The UK works closely with a number of comparatively small private companies that underpin sovereign capabilities in cryptographic technologies, for example; these are not state-owned, but they operate in a managed market in which they are subject to rules banning them from the export of certain product suites or technologies, yet also reliant on the often inconsistent patterns of government procurement.

That’s a tough space for entrepreneurially-minded businesses, many of which have chafed at the financial restrictions this places on them – even as they recognise the national security needs for such restraints on their ability to trade further afield. Fleming, pointing to this “difficult space for governments” noted that there is a “delicate balance” between state-led investment and market restrictions, and the importance of free trade.

GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming
GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming.

He quoted economist and academic, Mariana Mazzucato on the state’s role in creating markets and its ability to take on risk “at a scale impossible or improbable for a private company”, noting Mazzucato’s statement that to facilitate innovation governments must "do things that are not even envisioned and therefore not done at all”, saying “it is a delicate balance, but other states are already doing it.”

Jeremy Fleming said: "At the top of the pyramid, a very small percentage of key technologies must be truly sovereign to retain strategic technical advantage – things like elements of the cryptographic technologies that protect the UK’s most sensitive information and capabilities. Or spotting opportunities for building ecosystems critical to our future.

"We can achieve this," he noted, "by adopting a specific procurement approach, supporting an indigenous market, or by using statutory powers to restrict hostile foreign investment."

"The next epoch will be defined by those who grab the innovation initiative and succeed in promoting their values. That won’t be easy: it will take effort, it will involve change, it needs investment."

His lecture came as the UK vowed to be one of “the world’s leading democratic cyber powers” in a landmark Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published Tuesday, March 16. The Integrated Review (mentioning "cyber" 156 times) said the UK would “make much more integrated, creative and routine use of the UK’s full spectrum of levers – including the National Cyber Force’s offensive cyber tools – to detect, disrupt and deter our adversaries"

Countries like China, Jeremy Fleming said, are "bringing all elements of state power to control, influence design and dominate markets. Often with the effect of pushing out smaller players and reducing innovation... And states that do not share our values build their own illiberal values into the standards and technology upon which we may become reliant. If that happens, and it turns out to be insecure or broken or undemocratic, everyone is going to be facing a very difficult future."

See also: UK pledges to make more “creative and routine” use of offensive cyber tools.