5 March 2021

The hidden message in GCHQ’s AI report

By Dr Danny Steed

GCHQ has been long-famed for its expertise in code breaking and stealing secrets. Of all the subjects one might have expected for its first ever public release, ethics was unlikely to be it. Is GCHQ’s first ever public report only about the ethics of AI, or is there a hidden message? 

The paper released last week, ‘Pioneering a New National Security: The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence’, carries a subtext far more important than what GCHQ has to say on AI itself. This report is the first sign that the UK intelligence community is stepping out of the shadows to engage in public debate, and there are two reasons to support this.

First, the timing. It is no coincidence that GCHQ has pre-empted the release of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development, due for publication within the next week. Coming so soon after the public announcement of the National Cyber Force being established, GCHQ is positioning itself in the middle of public debate about the future of UK national security.

Second, the precedent. The off-shoot National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has been a logical experiment for an agency traditionally so cultured to high secrecy, to engage industry and the public in a controlled fashion for almost five years. Much has been learned from the new offices based in London and Manchester, and the annual review released each autumn. The time is clearly ripe to take a more pulic role. In doing so this soon before the Integrated Review and the new National Cyber Security Strategy, GCHQ is also stealing a march on the other intelligence agencies.

That suggests the emergence of a new dynamic when it comes to national security policy, one where the intelligence services make themselves heard ever more vocally. For GCHQ in particular, this report should be seen as the precursor to an annual report of some kind. Its own National Cybersecurity Centre already releases one, so it makes perfect sense that GCHQ would follow suit.

The big question, however, is whether MI5 and SIS will step into this space in the same way. If GCHQ is making its case to the public in this way, there’s a reasonable expectation that other agencies will follow suit.

The UK intelligence community has deliberately avoided public debate for most of its existence, and GCHQ’s report is the latest evolution to a more public-facing side that will become more and more the norm in national security debate. Will central bodies like the Joint Intelligence Committee also produce public reports? Other nations already produce these kind of reports. Estonia notably released their own very recently, and the US has released their own Worldwide Threat Assessment annually since 2006.

GCHQ has long been fond of sharing cryptic tweets with hidden messages for the public to decipher. The release of this report on AI carries its own hidden meaning for public debate on UK national security; we should be clever enough to read between the lines of code and see the change that is coming.

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Dr Danny Steed is a Research Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.