The ranks of Britain's intelligence agency MI6 will swell from 2,500 to approximately 3,500 by 2020, according to a report published by the BBC on Wednesday, as spy services in countries around the world point to the increasing primacy of cyberattacks as a tool of conflict between states.
The agency has not confirmed the figure, as it doesn't make public the size of its staff. But in a rare public appearance in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, MI6 chief Alex Younger acknowledged the growing use of the internet is greatly affecting the agency's procedures.
"The information revolution fundamentally changes our operating environment," said Mr. Younger, according to the BBC. "In five years' time there will be two sorts of intelligence services: those that understand this fact and have prospered, and those that don't and haven't. And I'm determined that MI6 will be in the former category."
"Our opponents who are unconstrained by conditions of lawfulness or proportionality can use these capabilities to gain increasing visibility of our activities which means that we have to completely change the way that we do stuff," he said.
The growth of the internet as an integral tool has meant that spy services and other government security agencies are wandering into what former secretary of defense Robert Gates once called "dark territory," when it comes to the prospect of preparing for cyberwar. The new era's inaugural moment may be 2010, when a US worm took down an Iranian nuclear centrifuge, deeply scrambling Iran's efforts to enrich enough uranium gas to produce a bomb.
But recent hacks on American targets by actors that US cybersecurity experts link to Russia are giving Western intelligence agencies new reason for worry. Last week, Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the US National Security Agency (NSA) told a Senate hearing that an "aggressive investigation" was under way into the possibility that foreign governments could be trying to undermine the presidential elections, though he would not confirm that hacks of voting machines in two states were the work of nation-states, according to Reuters.
"I will say this, that it continues to be an issue of great focus ... for the foreign intelligence community, attempting to generate insights into what foreign nations are doing in this area," said the admiral.
Younger, who spoke alongside his counterparts from the United States, Australia, and Canada, also suggested that the agency expects the threat of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists against Western targets to persist, even if territory controlled by the Islamic State is recaptured, given the "deepening sectarian divide in the Middle East," according to Sky News.
"There are some deep social, economic and demographic drivers to the phenomenon we know as terrorism," he said. "Allied with the emergence state failure, I think that regrettably this is an enduring issue."
He also spoke out against the leaking of National Security Agency data by former contractor Edward Snowden, saying it made the work of British intelligence agencies such as the MI6 and the GCHQ harder.
Those comments come on the heels of a new, sympathetic biopic of Mr. Snowden directed by Oliver Stone – one accompanied by a push from human-rights groups to get Snowden pardoned by President Obama – that may do much to rehabilitate the former contractor's image among much of the US public, putting them in league with the opinion of much of the globe, as The Christian Science Monitor noted this month.