Rory Cormac

Can we brainwash our enemies?

The new cyber strategy just rehashes old espionage techniques

Exterior of MI6 or or Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) building at night in London (Getty Images)

Disinformation is on the rise, and Britain’s spies are on the back foot. Our intelligence leaders warn about election meddling, and our enemies are trying to undermine public trust in our national institutions. The United Kingdom needs to use covert means to disrupt anti-British activities at their source. That’s what Harold Macmillan said in the 1950s, shortly before becoming prime minister.

Over half a century later, in 2017, the Chief of MI6 made the same point: adversaries should be ‘playing in their half of the pitch not ours.’ And half a decade on from that, here we are again. This week’s intriguing peek into the secretive work of the National Cyber Force conjures the old saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The National Cyber Force – a group of combined personnel from GCHQ, MI6, and the Ministry of Defence – released a document on Tuesday called ‘Responsible Cyber Power in Practice’, laying out the way they work. They conduct what are known as offensive cyber operations, meaning they disrupt Britain’s adversaries online by covertly hacking into enemy websites and communication channels. It’s the unacknowledged interference in the affairs of others. But for all the initial hype about cyberwar, the NCF’s work is not revolutionary. Cyberspace offers a new platform for old tricks. Propaganda, influence and sabotage.

The document talks of disrupting targets ‘with precision’, meaning there shouldn’t be collateral damage, but Clement Attlee, the post-war prime minister hardly known as a practitioner of secret statecraft, talked in the late forties of using MI6 to inflict what he called ‘pinpricks’ against Russia and China.

This is really just a pseudo-scientific phrase that repackages old ideas of covert operations for a new audience

It also talks of a British cyber operations being a responsible reaction – a ‘defence’ – against challenges posed by countries like Russia and Iran.

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