The writer is a former UK defence intelligence official and co-founder of Rebellion Defence, a national security start-up
Months before Russia embarked on its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a klaxon was sounding in the west. Intelligence gathered by US and UK agencies in late 2021 revealed the steady build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s frontier. Advanced details of Vladimir Putin’s plans for conflict — which were shared with Kyiv, Nato members and the media — may have helped Ukraine prepare its valiant national defence, and alerted allies to the impending war.
This rare declassification of sensitive intelligence has refocused attention on the bond between British and American spy agencies, forged 80 years ago against the Nazis and cemented during the cold war. As the allies once again confront an authoritarian adversary in Europe, partners around the world continue to rely on their intelligence as a bulwark against aggression. But even as the US and UK share data with Kyiv and help protect it from Russian cyber attacks, spies on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to adopt the new technologies that would secure their advantage.
Artificial intelligence and data science have changed the world of spying. Quantum computing will change it further. These technologies will analyse data largely found in the public domain: social media, travel records, and financial transactions. If they are to keep the public on side, and bring in tech companies, US and UK intelligence will have to become much more transparent in their operations. As MI6 chief Richard Moore said in a speech last November, there is a paradox in play: “To stay secret, we are going to have to become more open.”
Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, unaccountable to their citizens, thrive in the dark. Their spy agencies invest heavily in AI and surveillance technologies to monitor their own populations. Meanwhile, they support cyber attacks against democracies with an arsenal of malware and divisive disinformation campaigns.
The UK and US, by contrast, are developing new technologies to protect democratic freedoms. By collaborating, they can move faster than their adversaries. The close cultural and organisational links between Washington and London should provide a competitive advantage for this technological advance.
Designing world class AI depends on urgently modernising information-sharing to create a transatlantic flow of data, accessible to both sides. This shouldn’t be difficult: signals agencies GCHQ and the NSA already have a close working relationship, reinforced by decades of staff exchanges and high levels of mutual trust. But both are held back by restrictions on data-sharing due to outdated regulations and legitimate fears of counter-intelligence operations. While they must rightly guard against being too open, they must also consider the opportunity cost of being too closed.
Joint development of technology would enable better integration of software, which must be compatible, and constantly updated, to be effective. Establishing US-UK “software factories” to produce common data analysis tools would allow faster and deeper sharing of sensitive material between allies.
Some promising collaborations are already under way. Open source data is playing an growing role in intelligence collection, but civilian collaborators need protection from exposure. Last year, the US and UK launched a joint competition to re-engineer privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) — designed originally to protect patient identities in healthcare research — for espionage.
Of course, most of what UK and US intelligence agencies do will remain secret. But in the growing conflict between democracies and autocracies, the winners will be those who are most open to new ideas, new technologies and new partners. Eight decades on, the transatlantic allies must seek victory once again.