'Parliamentary bills will never replace the world of James Bond entirely' (Credit: Skyfall)

April 26, 2024   5 mins

The police were searching the home of a Libyan terror suspect, Abu Anas al-Liby, in Manchester when they came across an al-Qaeda handbook. The year was 2000, and the handbook — later dubbed the “Manchester Manual” — laid out the alarmingly sophisticated espionage techniques used by the terrorist group. One section stated that al-Qaeda’s financial security depends on “not placing operational funds [all] in one place” and “leaving the money with non-members” so as not to be tracked. Another read: “When a brother is carrying the forged passport of a certain country, he should not travel to that [specific] country.”

The Manual spooked Western intelligence agencies. Did this mean that terrorists were being trained to operate like MI6 agents? And if so, how could they be defeated? It’s a paranoia that has only grown in the past two decades. From terrorist groups to semiconductor companies, non-state actors increasingly have access to highly sensitive information of national importance. Espionage is now anyone’s game; the need for security everywhere. Only this week, two men in the UK — including a former parliamentary aide — were charged under the Official Secrets Act with spying on behalf of China. And while this might seem a throwback to a Le Carré world of inter-state espionage, the reality is that any modern spy worth their salt would be as interested in Britain’s private sector as it is in our government.

The British state has begun to realise this. In 2022, MI5 Director General Ken McCallum and FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a joint address to business and academic leaders. When it came to the threat of Chinese espionage and cyberattacks, they said: “most of what is at risk from the Chinese Communist Party aggression is not, so to speak, my stuff. It’s yours.” Nowadays, private companies developing products in areas such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors, and biotech have access to such sensitive information that, if it got into the wrong hands, it would be a national security issue.

Far from the Cold War era of stealing nuclear secrets — think Aldrich Ames and the Rosenbergs — spies today are more likely to want to nick your PowerPoint. In January last year, a Chinese spy named Zheng Xiaoqing stole a data file from General Electric Power, which related to the design and manufacturing of gas and steam turbines. The IP was thought to be worth several million. He attempted to hide the file within the code of another file — a picture of a sunset — using a technique called steganography. The choice of target is instructive: it is increasingly the Nvidias and ASMLs of the world (both semiconductor companies), and not the CIA or MI5, which have access to secret information of national importance.

This diffusion of knowledge and power away from the state and intelligence agencies, and towards private companies, marks a stark shift from the Cold War era. Back then, there was no confusion: the British and American intelligence communities had a monopoly over secrets. In fact, the Cold War was in many ways a war of intelligence, and its Manichean nature — an existential competition between the US and the Soviet Union — was far more stable than our current multipolar system. As Tom King, chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee in the Nineties, lamented in 1998: “Was not the Cold War, in its awful way, a form of rigid security system that has now collapsed?”

Ironically, globalisation was initially seen as the panacea for Cold War tension. The Marshall Plan of 1948 was President Truman’s attempt to induce Europe not to turn red with a large injection of cash. And four decades later, it was the desire for American blue jeans which helped bring down the Berlin Wall. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of terrorism, that the West figured out that globalisation and interdependency was a threat, not a cure. Today, in an interconnected world where we rely upon one Taiwanese company (TSMC) for all of our smartphones, economic and national security have become one and the same.

Well-aware that it cannot afford to turn a blind eye, the UK Government has overseen an influx of national security legislation in the past few years all designed to tighten scrutiny. The National Security & Investment Act, introduced in 2022, is designed to protect the UK’s critical infrastructure — from telecommunications to AI — against foreign acquisition. More recently the new National Security Bill, introduced in December 2023, is the most significant espionage law since the Official Secrets Act of 1911. And a new arm of MI5 — the National Protective Security Authority — was established in 2023 to advise private UK companies on how to combat cybersecurity. “Economic security” has also become a significant issue. In a speech last week Oliver Dowden laid out plans for export controls and tighter regulation of sensitive research projects in British academic institutions, arguing that “our economic and security interests are intertwined as never before”.

What this wave of legislation suggests is that national security has become so all-encompassing and diverse that it can no longer be separated from the rest of government. Legislation, not secret agents, is being used to counter security threats. In a globalised world, the politician’s pen is replacing the agent’s pistol.

Some fear that the government’s increasing role in dealing with national security may lead to its politicisation. Just last month, the UK banned foreign state ownership of newspapers, responding to the attempted acquisition of the Telegraph by the UAE conglomerate RedBird. Prior to the ban itself, the acquisition was seen to “represent a very real potential national security threat” by a group of 18 Tory MPs. The problem is that, although the concerns over the Telegraph instance were well-founded, the broader notion of “national security” remains undefined and ambiguous — even in a major piece of legislation like the National Security & Investment Act. The risk is that, with the ever-widening scope of “national security”, it becomes a political issue, defined and redefined by politicians at any given moment.

Across the Atlantic, earlier this week Congress approved a bill to ban TikTok unless the the Chinese company ByteDance sells the US platform. The concerns stem from two issues. The first is the fact that for many people TikTok acts as a de facto source of news: its ownership by a Chinese company therefore essentially translates into a foreign-held media company. Second, there is the issue of TikTok’s vast pool of data — and fears that the CCP has access to it. The danger is that TikTok could be used for surveillance, Chinese-sanctioned propaganda, and ultimately to undermine American democracy. In the run-up to an already potentially toxic presidential election, those worries are not unfounded. Nonetheless, the forced sale of TikTok is yet another example of Western governments feeling compelled to use a blunt instrument (legislation) to tackle issues of national and economic security.

“TikTok could be used for surveillance, Chinese-sanctioned propaganda, and ultimately to undermine American democracy.”

Pressure has mounted on the UK to follow suit. And the UK has in general very much followed (or been lent on by) the US to toughen its national security legislation in recent years. Just think back to Trump’s row with Johnson over Huawei in 2020, when Britain was on the cusp of allowing a Chinese company to dominate the UK’s 5G network. But we also have less weight to throw around in the global economy than America. The US can easily absorb the shock of any unintended consequences inflicted by heavy-handed legislation. The UK, on the other hand, has to walk a finer line between national security and staying open for business. There can be no such thing today, economically speaking, of an isolationist Britain.

This collaboration (and, in some cases, confrontation) between the state and private companies who hold IP and technology of national importance is not necessarily a bad thing. But as the lines between economic and national security blur, the trade-off may well be a politicisation (and bureaucratisation) of national security by those in Whitehall. And this does represent a fundamental break with the past. As the intelligence academics Antonio Díaz Fernández and Ruben Arcos put it, the days of the Cold War “secret state” are giving way to the 21st-century “protecting state”, in which national security seeps into everyday life.

Since the Cold War “national security” has expanded from the narrow realm of military power and deterrence to include terrorism, environmental security, migration, cybersecurity and now economic security. Of course, parliamentary bills will never replace the world of James Bond entirely. But, as Bond’s own Chief of Intelligence put it a little over a decade ago: “Our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map, they aren’t nations… It’s in the shadows — that’s where we must do battle.”

Guy Ward-Jackson is a masters student at King’s College London studying Intelligence & International Security.