Robots can work alongside spies to detect enemy threats to UK, Tom Tugendhat says

Tom Tugendhat: “We live in a very different world to the one we inhabited a decade ago” - EPA
Tom Tugendhat: “We live in a very different world to the one we inhabited a decade ago” - EPA

Intelligence gathered by AI will be used to help spies and identify enemy threats to the UK, Tom Tugendhat said.

The new plans will see AI used to sift through vast amount of data to catch intelligence that might otherwise be missed by humans.

Lessons from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have shown how information from open sources can help identify threats, provided analysts are not swamped by data, Mr Tugendhat said.

Writing exclusively in The Telegraph, the Security Minister said a new department will be set up to focus on publicly available information, adding to the work of MI5 and MI6.

“Traditional spying will still lift the curtain on the plans of our enemies,” he said. “We will still need to listen and look where they want to hide.”

However, “intelligence has changed,” Mr Tugendhat warned, adding “we live in a very different world to the one we inhabited a decade ago”.

The new open source intelligence (OSINT) hub will add “richness and detail” to the work of traditional spies as well as countering disinformation that seeks to “tear us apart”.

The size and budget of the new unit has yet to be decided, although plans are expected to be put to the Prime Minister in May.

In his budget on March 15, the Chancellor pledged almost £3.5 billion to boost Britain’s science and technology sectors and make the UK a tech “superpower”.

The government has said it will set out further plans to stimulate research and development in emerging technologies in an AI White Paper.

‘We had to declassify and open up’

Mr Tugendhat stressed the new unit would not be used to spy on the British public.

“There's a whole series of ways in which people are putting information out there,” he told the Telegraph.

“This isn't a question of the government sucking everything in, but rather, understanding what's already out there.

“Most intelligence is about shaping an argument and in a democracy that has to be done publicly.

“If you look at what we did in the run up to Ukraine, we opened up a lot of intelligence to partners around the world, but also to people in the UK…to explain what we were seeing, why we thought the build up of Russian forces was credible, why it was genuinely a threat to Ukraine and why we were taking it so seriously.

“We had to do things that intelligence agencies don't traditionally do, which was to declassify and open up [information].

“What became obvious was that it didn't need to be secret intelligence that was declassified.

“We need to find ways in which we can point out what's really happening in the world, to people who need to know it. In a democracy, that means our citizens in ways that are usable.”

Targeting Russian disinformation

The minister said the new unit will also target disinformation from Russia and elsewhere, fact-checking and calling out lies aimed at targeting British society.

“We're seeing our security undermined by the attempt to tear us apart, to spread disinformation, to spread lies in our communities,” Mr Tugendhat said.

“We see it through social media channels and we're aware that some social media channels give control to foreign states, who could in theory use it to promote divisive or problematic campaigns that would tear us apart.”

The government hopes the new unit will mirror the work of Bellingcat, the commercial intelligence company that sifted publicly available information to show Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 was shot down by Russian controlled forces in July 2014 in eastern Ukraine by a Buk anti-aircraft missile system.

“They followed photographs of various convoys, including of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system.

“They did that through publicly available information. It wasn’t us that did it.

“I think that demonstrates what we need to be thinking about. Bellingcat [has] demonstrated why this matters.

“This is an opportunity for us to look at the way in which the UK is able to offer that element of support to our friends and allies, and that extra element of security to our country.”

Tom Tugendhat is Thursday's guest on the Telegraph's daily podcast Ukraine The Latest He will expand upon the themes raised here