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  1. Government Computing
July 20, 2023

The Home Office and MI6 deploy AI to counter terrorist threat

Artificial intelligence can be both an ally and a threat to the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman has said.

By Sophia Waterfield

The Home Office is preparing to tackle terrorism threats using artificial intelligence, according to its latest counter-terror strategy. The launch of the strategy comes after the head of MI6 said his team’s work is already being augmented by AI.

Image of Suella Braverman, UK Home Secretary.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman says AI could transform the work of the Home Office. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, launched the UK’s latest counter-terrorism strategy during a speech in Westminster this week. CONTEST was originally launched in 2018 after the terrorist bombings in London and Manchester by former Prime Minister Theresa May and her home secretary, Sajid Javid.

Braverman said in her update that AI is one of the “fastest-growing deep technologies” and has the potential to transform the work done by the Home Office. However, she said that it could also be used by terrorists, allowing them to be “more sophisticated with less effort.”

“It’s essential that we continue to invest in the identification of future threats and opportunities that derive from technology – working with international partners, the private sector, think tanks, and academia,” she said.

Yesterday Sir Richard Moore, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, told delegates at an event at the British Embassy in Prague that AI was already being used by the secret services to analyse data and disrupt Russia in its war with Ukraine.

CONTEST strategy says investment in technology in counter-terrorism efforts will continue

According to the updated strategy, the Home Office will use AI and virtual reality to improve its ‘testing and exercising programme’ when learning lessons from past terrorist incidents. The Manchester Arena Inquiry recommended that the government departments and first responders needed to “strengthen its ability to test and exercise the end-to-end response to a terrorist attack.”

“To support this, we will improve the systems we have in place to capture, share, and act on the lessons we learn, including from past incidents,” it says.

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Investment in “data, analysis and technology capabilities” will continue, says the strategy. The Home Office says it will also “build on and create new partnerships” to ensure early detection of terrorism threats to the UK and interests overseas: “As part of this, we will improve the way data is obtained and analysed by forming cutting-edge partnerships and valuing the input of other experts such as data scientists and engineers.”

As part of the policy document, the Home Office references the increasing use of AI and that the department plans to use it in the future. “AI has implications for both our approach to counter-terrorism and the threats we face,” the strategy says.

It touches upon that AI could also be used against the UK: “While it could radically speed up the process of threat detection, terrorists are likely to exploit the technology to create and amplify radicalising content, propaganda and instructional materials, and to plan and commit attacks.”

As reported by Fortune, this is already a reality as countries such as China, Kuwait and Russia have launched AI-generated news anchors. During the Russia-Ukraine war, fabricated videos of both President Volodymr Zelenskyy and President Vladimir Putin have been circulated.

End-to-end encryption concerns resurface

During Braverman’s speech, concerns about how terrorists “exploited” technologies such as end-to-end encryption came to the fore. The Home Secretary said that terrorists were able to hide their networks, spread propaganda and enable attacks because of this.

“That is why CONTEST commits to enabling legal access to the data we need to investigate and disrupt terrorist activity,” she said. The strategy references the need to access data to “protect the public”, which it says encryption makes difficult.

The Online Safety Bill, which looks to remove illegal content from public and private channels using ‘accredited technology’ via regulator Ofcom, is being opposed by technology companies such as WhatsApp, Signal and Apple, who say breaking end-to-end encryption could cause security problems. Civil rights groups have also expressed concerns the bill is a threat to privacy. The legislation is currently in the House of Lords before it will go to the final stages of becoming law.

“[End-to-end encryptional]… helps everyday citizens defend themselves from surveillance, identity theft, fraud, and data breaches,” Apple said in a statement. “The Online Safety Bill poses a serious threat to this protection and could put UK citizens at greater risk.”

AI won’t replace international spies says Moore

Outside of the UK, MI6 chief Moore said that AI wouldn’t replace humans within the secret service, but would rather enhance the work they are already doing.

“AI is going to make information infinitely more accessible and some have asked whether it will put intelligence services like mine out of business. In fact, the opposite is likely to be true,” he said. “As AI trawls the ocean of open source, there will be even greater value in landing, with a well-cast fly, the secrets that lie beyond the reach of its nets.”

Moore continued that human agents could “influence decisions” as part of their work and identify new questions that an AI might not be able to do. However, he conceded that AI might take over “some aspects” of human cognition: “It’s possible that digital tools may come to understand – or rather, to be able to predict – human behaviour better than humans can,” he said.

But the bonds created and maintained by human agents will mean that some work within the secret service will stay “uniquely and stubbornly human.”

“I expect that we will increasingly be tasked with obtaining intelligence on how hostile states are using AI in damaging, reckless and unethical ways,” Moore went on to say. “I know that we can only protect our citizens if we understand the essence of the threat while embracing AI’s undoubted potential for good.”

China has been “hoovering up” data sets from other countries

Moore’s speech then turned to China and how it was using AI. He said that other countries intended to “win the race” and that some had inherent advantages, which the UK wouldn’t be able to match, or wish to.

“China benefits from sheer scale,” he said. “AI, in its current form, requires colossal volumes of data; the more data you have, the more rapidly you can teach machine-learning tools. China has added to its immense data sets at home by hoovering up others abroad.”

The speech continued on that Chinese authorities were not “hugely troubled by questions of personal privacy of individual data security”, with Moore saying that they were more focused on controlling information and preventing “inconvenient truths” from being revealed.

Read more: Facebook is using AI to fight terrorist propaganda

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