As the first female boss of GCHQ, Anne Keast-Butler will take the helm at the intelligence agency as it responds to ‘some of the most challenging issues of our time’.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat posed by China and fighting cyber attacks will all be high on a complex to-do list facing the next director as well as continued efforts to diversify the organisation.

– Russia and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine

As her appointment was announced, Ms Keast-Butler said: ‘GCHQ’s mission to keep the UK safe is as inspiring today as it was when it was founded more than 100 years ago, operating at the very heart of the UK and our allies’ response to some of the most challenging issues of our time.’

She highlighted how in the last year alone GCHQ had contributed ‘vital intelligence to shape the West’s response to the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine’, among other work.

Outgoing spy chief Sir Jeremy Fleming last year described Vladimir Putin’s decision making during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as ‘flawed’.

He also told how the conflict represented a ‘sea change’ in the release of secret intelligence to inform public debate – with information revealed by western agencies helping to counter Moscow’s narrative.

– Working with and against China

Ms Keast-Butler will also be faced with another challenge the security services are grappling with – the need to balance concerns about threats China may pose to national security against the reality that the country remains a key economic partner for the UK – particularly in a post-Brexit world.

Despite the potential immediate threat posed by Russia, Sir Jeremy previously told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that China was the ‘real long-term threat’ to UK national security – saying the country was ‘deploying its ideologies in ways that we think are against our national interests’.

China is using science and technology as a way of bringing other countries ‘into its sphere of influence’, he warned.

Sir Jeremy said countries seeking economic support from China might find this comes with ‘a lot of strings attached’, such as the imposed adoption of Chinese technologies, suggesting it could have potential security implications.

– Cyber attacks and ransomware

Another key strand of work is the continued focus on cyber security – particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic amid a growing threat of cyber attacks when GCHQ worked to protect vaccine research targeted by hackers.

An arm of GCHQ known as the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) leads on this work and last month director Lindy Cameron highlighted the importance of business bosses taking a hands-on approach to cyber security.

Ms Keast-Butler will also be taking on her role in the wake of more details being revealed about GCHQ’s work with the Ministry of Defence to carry out daily cyber operations to protect the UK from threats, support military missions and fight serious crime.

Last week James Babbage, a GCHQ intelligence officer for nearly 30 years, was named publicly for the first time as the commander of the so-called National Cyber Force – which was launched in 2020 – in a bid to remove the secrecy behind some of this work.

The covert work is ‘legal and ethical’ but uses techniques ‘that have the potential to sow distrust, decrease morale, and weaken’ adversaries including disrupting terrorist groups and hostile state disinformation campaigns as well as removing child sexual abuse images from the internet and tackling attempts to interfere in democracy.

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