Following the US, EU, and UK’s decisions to ban China’s TikTok from government phones over security fears and recent reports of a Russian cyber espionage campaign infecting computer networks in dozens of countries, it has become very clear that cybersecurity and data security is a key element of national security concerns.
“It’s understandable when you think of your national security interests you are also wanting to ensure not just as it were traditional defense secrets but also security in the digital space and that is not necessarily the areas that are the most obvious,” Lord Jonathan Evans, Member of the House of Lords, who formerly served as the Director General of the British Security Service, the United Kingdom’s domestic security and counter-intelligence service MI5, told NE Global in an exclusive interview recently.
“My understanding is that the American concern about TikTok is there is a lot of data that is derived from who uses it, where they are using it. Lots of secondary data you get from engaging with a platform like that which could be of interest to an intelligence service and intelligence services like to get large quantities of data and then see what there is in there that eliminates the questions that they are asking themselves,” Evans said, referring to the popular social media platform owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance.
On May 9, the US Justice Department said it had disrupted a long-running Russian cyber espionage campaign linked to the FSB that infected computer networks in dozens of countries, including in the US, and resulted in the theft of sensitive information from governments belonging to governments of NATO members, an unidentified journalist for a US news organization who reported on Russia, and other select targets of interest to the Kremlin, AP reported.
On May 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that several US government agencies and departments are investigating whether Rockwell Automation is exposing US infrastructure, military, and other government assets to potential cybersecurity risks through one of its China-based facilities.
Evans, who spent 33 years in the UK Security Service, with six of those as Director General, told NE Global that any major power thinking about their security interests needs to consider what other powers there are that might challenge them in circumstances that may arise. “We have seen this very clearly with Ukraine, there is obviously a lot of concern about some of the bellicose language around Taiwan and it’s therefore understandable if people are thinking through their security interests when you get bellicose language of that sort about the possible use of military force,” he said.
On May 12 at an informal in Stockholm, EU foreign affairs ministers set out plans to recalibrate the bloc’s China policy, aiming to reduce the risks of economic dependency on Beijing and address national security concerns.
Seven years after the Brexit vote, Evans said leaving the EU has not compromised London’s security ties with its allies. “The British government have very keen to make clear that the European defense interests and particularly our role in NATO has been maintained and, of course, much of our intelligence liaison is not through European bodies. It is in bilateral and other multinational fora. So, I think one of the aims of British policy has been to ensure that the strong national security relationships that we have within Europe and within NATO are maintained,” the UK MP and former counter-intelligence chief said.
Turning to Africa, Evans said the continent is obviously an extremely important region in terms of several security issues both in terms of natural resources on the economic side and counter-terrorism challenges. “If you look at what’s happening in Nigeria, if you look at what has been happening in Somalia, in other part of that region. There are national security interests for any country with a global perspective in Africa and I think that we have seen a considerable change in the perspective on that in the last fifteen years,” he said.
Evans noted that the climate stress in the Sahel region has created social and economic circumstances which then led to national security threats. “There has been very considerable terrorist and inter-communal violence in those areas which are partly ideological but it’s very largely a competition for resources,” he said.
“If you look at issues like migration, there are solid communal links and inter-community links with many African communities. Europe is engaged with Africa – walk the streets of Europe and you will see many people of African origin. It’s been clear if you look at what is happening in Sudan. There are thousands of British citizens in Sudan. There are hundreds of other European citizens in Sudan so that is a very clear demonstration that the interests of Africa and Europe are not separate, they are linked,” Evans said, adding, “There will be a national security element to those.”