11 Nov 2014

Could Alan Turing have worked for our modern security services?

Sir John Scarlett is not an easy man to interview. So you would expect from a former chief of MI6 – they don’t normally give interviews at all.

In fact it was only four years ago, in 2010, that a serving head of MI6 first gave a speech in public.  Sir John took over at Vauxhall Cross in the wake of one of the worst intelligence failures in decades – the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

But he has been tempted out of the shadows to talk about the spectacularly successful work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and in particular a new film and exhibition on the life of Alan Turing,  the famously brilliant mathematician who died tragically young after being prosecuted for homosexuality.

Sir John concedes that there were many great minds at Bletchley, where some 25,000 people worked during the second world war. The film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, contains a couple of glaring inaccuracies: Turing was not put in charge of Hut 8 by Winston Churchill (though clearly the temptation of linking one famous maverick with another was too good to miss) and he left Bletchley in 1942, not at the end of the conflict – the Enigma code was first cracked in 1940.

“Almost everybody played a key role,” Scarlett says, adding that he enjoyed the film enormously: “I think to have their role recognised in a major way would give them real pleasure. It is one of the most extraordinary features of the story that the enemy didn’t know their top level communications were being intercepted.”

We are speaking just after a newspaper article by Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ, claimed that technological companies such as Twitter and Facebook have become facilitators of terrorism. It seems a world away from the wartime collaboration with British firms at Bletchley Park.

As does the revelation by Edward Snowden of the enormous extent of data collection and trawling by US and UK intelligence agencies without a warrant. Scarlett says it is “unimaginable” to imagine a Snowden figure back to the 1940s. “You are talking about someone who goes out in public and makes a public exposure. Of course it was possible there would have been a traitor who would have betrayed operations to the other side.”

The key difference, of course, is that today’s enemy is not using a unique code to communicate but the same mobile phones, internet and social media as the rest of us.  Which raises the issue of civil liberties being infringed by intelligence work aimed at jihadist terrorists in a way that cracking Germany‘s use of Enigma machines simply did not.

“There is a big difference between a state-run machine and when you can’t distinguish between state structures and civilian and social media. There has been a multiplicity of channels which has grown up on the internet. The question is how to protect yourself. I don’t think anyone is denying that the codes of those making a direct physical threat against you and the communications of people planning such attacks need to be intercepted and understood.”

Scarlett doesn’t really wish to be drawn much further on this, beyond pointing out that intelligence-gathering needs to be carried out within “proper legal perameters” and that Hannigan’s comments “require careful thought and careful study”.

I ask him if Alan Turing would get a job with today’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, given that Scarlett has previously said that there was no room for “crackpots or mavericks”.

“Well, he wasn’t in SIS. But actually I am not saying he was a crackpot. He was a very brilliant man.”

Still, it points to the continuing difference in skill sets between the codebreakers at GCHQ and intelligence officers at MI6 that Scarlett doesn’t answer my question directly. “Certainly there would be room for someone of Alan Turing’s brilliance, discipline and patriotism in the British intelligence community.”

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