MI6 chief reveals why he only writes messages in green ink

The head of MI6 has revealed he only writes in green ink, whether on paper or on his computer, in homage to a tradition established by the very first ‘C’, who set up the intelligence service over a century ago.

Richard Moore, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, confirmed the tradition continued in a rare interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday morning.

The first C – the code name used by every head of MI6 – was Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, a naval officer who set up Britain’s first foreign intelligence agency in 1909.

Mr Moore said his predecessor tended to write memos in green ink only, a tradition which has been continued by each C ever since to the present day.

“This is a tradition that dates back to the first C,” he explained. “He was a naval man and he wrote with green ink.

“So anyone getting a note in green ink knows it comes from me, and the same is true of the typescript on my computer.”

MI6 has come a long way in opening up to the world, Mr Moore said, noting when he first joined the service in the 1980s it was not even publicly acknowledged to exist by the government, let alone giving radio interviews.

“In a modern democracy, it is important that I come and share some thoughts on what my service does, the challenges that we face, and how we will need to change to meet those challenges,” he said, when asked by the presenter Nick Robinson why he had decided to speak publicly.

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Ahead of a speech later on Tuesday, Mr Moore explained he would be arguing the West needed to stay ahead of the technological curve to ensure authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia could not take advantage.

“In the contest for influence and power through the 21st century, those who command the key technologies will have an advantage, so it’s really important that we in the West keep up and are able to innovate to keep up.”

Traditional espionage where officers recruited informants and agents overseas to provide intelligence was still vital, but today MI6 needed to collaborate with Britain’s tech sector to ensure it was up to date with the latest innovations, Mr Moore argued.

China in particular was trying to entrap other nations in debt and ensnare their data as well, he warned, which meant Britain had to be “very robust in fighting our corner”.

He said measures taken in recent years to protect Britain from Chinese digital interference – a possible reference to the decision last year to block block Huawei from building the UK’s 5G infrastructure – were the right ones but not all of the UK’s allies were on the same page.

“A data trap is if you allow another country to gain access to critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty,” he said. “We’re very alive to this in the UK, but that’s not true of all other places.”

In response to concerns MI6 could not be trusted to work with private British tech companies without misusing citizens’ data, Mr Moore said his officers always worked within UK privacy laws.

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“The difference between us and the Chinese intelligence services is that we have to act within the law. Where privacy is protected within the UK law we absolutely have to adhere to it.

“[But] if you look at some of the technology which is available around authoritarian regimes – so-called smart cities, surveillance etc – then clearly in order to stay ahead of that we can’t do all of this in-house, in our Q labs.”


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