The Chief of MI6, Alex Younger, made a rare public appearance at the Women in IT Awards in London. In his speech, he recognised the outstanding contribution by female technologists, took the opportunity to promote an increased focus on diversity in the agency, and revealed that the real-life equivalent of James Bond’s tech expert ‘Q’ is female.
“So, this is why I have a more practical consideration which is that if any of you would like to join us… The real-life Q is looking forward to meeting you and I’m pleased to report that the real-life Q is a woman.”
Younger was keen to dispel the James Bond stereotype of an MI6 officer. “It leads to a stereotype which is of a particular kind or a particular sort of person that will join MI6.” And whilst stating he is proud of his workforce, Younger conceded that there is a need to improve diversity in the agency.
“The more different people you have in the room, in these high-pressure circumstances in which we operate, the better the decisions. So, success for me is a deeper, broader range of technological skills in MI6 and more diversity, in particular more women.”
Younger also spoke of the impact of technology on the agency and its future. “We are having to manoeuvre against this changing technological landscape and to do that we need the most brilliant technological skills, capabilities and people available to us. And if we get this stuff on our side and if we get this right we’ll go on improving. If we don’t, we won’t, and I’m determined that we succeed. So, technology lies at the heart of what we do and we are determined to stay ahead.”
>See also: Women in IT Awards 2017 – finalists revealed
The Women in IT Awards, organised by Information Age in partnership with Amazon Web Services, is the world’s largest event dedicated to tackling the technology industry’s gender imbalance. It does this by showcasing the achievements and innovation of women in technology, identifying new role models and promoting collective dialogue around diversity among key industry stakeholders.
Ben Rossi, editorial director of Information Age publisher Vitesse Media and founder of the Women in IT Awards, said: “The presence of the MI6 Chief, someone who very rarely makes public appearances, at the Women in It Awards tonight is a huge statement. You could have heard a pin drop during his keynote and I think it will go down as a ground-breaking speech that ends the intimidating stereotypes which have long prevented women from considering British foreign intelligence as a career path.”
Commenting on the event, Alex Younger, Chief of MI6, said: “As the head of a human intelligence organisation that has technology right at its heart, I am
delighted to have the opportunity to demonstrate my support for an event which recognises the outstanding contribution by women in the IT industry; a contribution I am determined to grow and enhance in MI6.”
“More broadly, this is an opportunity for me to dispel the myths that too often see people rule themselves out from applying to join MI6. My message is a simple one: we need the best talent from the widest range of backgrounds to counter the threats facing this country and to seize the opportunities presented by modern technology.”
See below for a full transcription of Alex Younger’s speech at the Women in IT Awards last night
Good evening, everybody. My name is Alex Younger. I am head of the organisation known as the
Secret Intelligence Service or MI6.
Now, as a spy, the truth is I don’t get out much, least of all to an evening as glamourous and frankly posh as this one so I’m extremely grateful for the invitation. Thank you to Ben [Rossi], thank you to Information Age and thank you to Vitesse Media for this opportunity. I joined the Secret Service not
expecting to be talking at an awards ceremony.
I hope it will become clear as I speak to you why I think this occasion is so important. First of all, I suppose I should start by talking a little bit about us, MI6, and the fact that we do find ourselves busy at the moment.
In fact, you might wonder why I’m here this evening. We were set up in 1909 to reveal the secret aspects of Germany’s plans to start the First World War
(which obviously didn’t end as well as it could have).
We have been in business for a while and we have known some episodes but interestingly now as I look back on my 25-year career and I think about recent memory, we in the intelligence community are probably under more pressure and greater weight of expectation for what we do than certainly I can ever remember.
I was thinking about why that is – it’s something to do with globalisation and it’s something to do with digitalisation but the boundaries between us here in the UK and overseas and some of the threats that are coming from overseas have been disrupted, have been reduced.
We in the covert world, the intelligence services of the UK – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, find ourselves in the frontline confronting a large number of the threats that are facing the country that are kind of the other side of the positive of globalisation. So, we’re busy, there’s a lot going on, there are men and
women from MI6 across the world as we speak now doing what we are paid for which is to keep this country safe.
They are identifying, penetrating and disrupting terrorist groups; they are uncovering the activities of hostile intelligence services who seek to undermine our country and our allies. And of course, relevant to this evening, they are identifying threats in cyber space; cyber criminals, terrorist and spies who are using new methods to threaten us in very old ways.
That is going on now and that is our mission. We have a lot of experience and you should have confidence in our capabilities. But there is another more important mission for us in MI6 and for me as the leader and that is for us to change because we are in a Darwinian world in intelligence rather like I imagine you are in the technology industry.
We are only as good as our last operation and we have to stay ahead of our opponents if we are to be successful. And these are opponents, bear in mind, who are not constrained by any consideration of law or proportionality and will do more-or-less anything to achieve their objectives and it falls to us to stay ahead. And I have to think about the ways in which our capability can develop to stay ahead and to keep us in the premier league of world intelligence services which is absolutely where we are today.
And it’s that change that I think is relevant to this evening. Because, in my head, it comprises two things: first of all, that technology is on our side and
not on the side of our enemies and, secondly, that we in MI6 draw on the full range of talent that our country has to offer.
It’s those two things that I need to happen and they are happening and it’s those two things that are the reason why I’m here this evening. Technology has always been at the heart of MI6. My sixteenth predecessor, Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming, who set up MI6, he was a massive gadget guy.
I heard one day he chopped off his own leg after a car crash in the First World War, which sets quite a high bar. He was very handy and outside my office at Vauxhall Cross there’s a big grandfather clock which he built himself with his own hands.
It’s a beautiful thing. So, he was into gadgets and so it has continued. The challenges of what we do as the human intelligence service, creating relationships with agents overseas who give us the intelligence we need, have always been buttressed by technology. We’ve always had to communicate
with these people and we’ve always had to keep those relationships safe.
That has all involved technology. My predecessor, Hugh Sinclair, just before the Second World War recognised the power of data, arguably the first person to do it, and turned that insight into Bletchley Park which in turn in fact became GCHQ. So, we’ve got technology in our blood. The gadgets now that we employ or operational technology as we more properly call it probably defy the imagination of spy writers.
So, it’s always been there, but technology now is at the core of what we do in a way that it wasn’t before. And that is because the advent of the internet and big data pose for me or for us as an intelligence service both a golden opportunity and an existential threat: a golden opportunity to use this technology in a lawful way to identify ways of gaining intelligence, getting the information we need to keep you safe.
It’s an existential threat because our opponents are using that stuff against us, using it to reveal our activities meaning that the sort of operations that I’ve been engaged in in my career as an intelligence officer are just no longer fit for purpose. We are having to manoeuvre against this changing technological landscape and to do that we need the most brilliant technological skills, capabilities and people available to us. And if we get this stuff on our side and if
we get this right we’ll go on improving. If we don’t, we won’t, and I’m determined that we succeed.
So, technology lies at the heart of what we do and we are determined to stay ahead. The second priority I have is my ambition to make sure that we at MI6 employ the best, quite simply. We’ve always attracted talented if slightly maverick people.
Unfortunately, it’s only really the mavericks you hear about, everyone else is really boring. But Britain is changing. We have all sorts of opportunities to make sure that we bring talent from the full range of Britain into our intelligence services and here I face a problem because there’s a stereotype and it’s not as I am now standing in front of you in a dinner jacket and all of that. The problem for me is that we’ve got to get over and see through the Bond thing.
Alright, that’s good actually – let’s do the Bond thing for a bit. It’s great in some ways because it means that all of our opponents think there’s an MI6 officer behind every bush and that we’re 10,000 times larger than we actually are. That’s all great, but there’s a problem because it leads to a stereotype which is of a particular kind or a particular sort of person that will join MI6 – whether they’re really posh or going to Oxford or whatever it is. I’m none of those things by the way.
And the issue for me is that stands in the way of something that I regard as being so important which is that we can reach into every community in Britain and make sure that we get the people that are the best regardless of their background [trails off]. I think that is the diversity challenge. If we can truly make sure that we’ve got the skills that are available [inaudible]. And that for me is what drives my deep commitment to diversity and making my organisation even more diverse that it already is.
And there’s another benefit to this beyond the capacity to get the full range of skills [inaudible]. As Ben alluded to, I also believe that we can make
much, much better decisions.
The more different people you have in the room, in these high-pressure circumstances in which we operate, the better the decisions. So, success for me is a deeper, broader range of technological skills in MI6 and more diversity, in particular more women. I want to, on behalf of MI6, congratulate all the people that have been nominated for awards this evening because I’m quite sure they are people who will exemplify the simple truth which is it doesn’t
matter what your background is.
What matters is your character, your creativity and your determination. It doesn’t matter what you gender is, what matters is your character, your creativity and your determination. And so it is at MI6 and I’m quite sure you will be demonstrating that to us this evening.
So, this is why I have a more practical consideration which is that if any of you would like to join us… The real-life Q is looking forward to meeting you and I’m pleased to report that the real-life Q is a woman.
Thank you all very much indeed for being here tonight. I wish you all a really good evening.
About the Women in IT Awards
The Women in IT Awards is the world’s largest event dedicated to tackling the technology industry’s
disheartening gender imbalance. It does this by showcasing the achievements and innovation of
women in technology, identifying new role models and promoting further dialogue around diversity
among industry influencers. Organised by business-technology magazine Information Age, the
Women in IT Awards has gathered resounding support from trade associations, politicians and
companies of all sizes and sectors since launching in 2015.