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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > February 2016 > What spies should see

What spies should see

New technology helps our enemies as well as us and raises new questions about providing security and preserving freedom

Can we stop a Paris-style attack happening in London? The honest answer is yes—most of the time.


As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad. Working with intelligence partners in the United States and the Middle East, we had significant successes. You do not know about the attacks we prevented because they did not occur, and we don’t talk about them. Why give our enemies clues to how we stop them?

When I joined MI6, I was trained to spot people tracking me by tapping my phone, intercepting radio communications or following me by car or on foot. Today those techniques are used against terrorist suspects, supported by technologies like face or footstep recognition. But you have to know which people pose a threat— and first, you have to find them.

One method we use is the new science of data analytics. Every time you use your mobile, post a Tweet, shop online, drive past a CCTV camera, tap your Oyster card, or watch a YouTube cat video, you create data. Everything you do digitally—everything anyone does—makes these data oceans bigger, richer and deeper.

So we dive into these data oceans and look for patterns. We search for snippets of information that warrant a closer look. Then we have to work out who, among several thousand possible extremist sympathisers, might launch an attack in Britain next week.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February issue: Lawrence Summers questions Robert J Gordon’s thesis on the impact of the digital revolution, John Sawers, the former Chief of MI6, highlights how technology is making the work of spies harder and Frank Furedi examines the student movements demanding protection from the offensive and uncomfortable. Also in this issue: Gershom Gorenberg on Israel, Ben Judah on the complexity of London and Elizabeth Pisani on the impact of fake drugs. Plus Sam Tanenhaus on Obama’s gun control plans.