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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 06:03 GMT 07:03 UK
Out of the shadows

By Gordon Corera
BBC News security correspondent

Computer keyboard
The MI6 hopes to replicate the success of the MI5 website

Britain's Secret Intelligence Service - officially known as SIS but popularly known as MI6 - is taking another step out of the shadows as it emerges into the internet age.

The launch of a website marks another step towards having a public face for an organisation which was not even officially acknowledged to exist until just over a decade ago.

The motivation comes from two related areas.

Firstly, there is a desire to clarify what the organisation actually does.

There is plenty of information out there but the concern from insiders is that it is not always accurate and can heighten the sense that SIS is somehow outside of government control.

So on the website, there is plenty of information on accountability and relationships with the rest of government, as well as answering questions like how its Chief is appointed and why he is called 'C'.

The second motivation is a desire to use the website to make it easier for people to apply to join the service.

Many of the pages on the site are dedicated to outlining the different types of jobs performed at SIS and providing 'profiles' of people's work.

These are understood to be based on real individuals.

MI6 headquarters
MI6 has been shrouded in secrecy for most of its history

SIS is keen to emphasise that this is no longer a place where Oxford and Cambridge graduates get a tap on the shoulder to join, but instead somewhere where people with a broader diversity of skills and backgrounds can feel comfortable about applying.

As well as traditional intelligence officers, there is also the need for people with IT skills to deal with the complex forms of data analysis involved in counter-terrorism, as well as expertise in areas like human resources, accountancy and management to support the organisation's work.

The website of the Security Service (MI5) has proved a huge success when it comes to recruiting. Around 90% of applicants now come via the website.

A few weeks ago, when the new series of the drama Spooks started on BBC1, the MI5 website had double the normal number of hits.

Possible pitfalls

However, opening up recruitment does create some dangers for SIS. Unscrupulous individuals, journalists, or even Al Qaeda sympathisers could try and sign up but there will continue to be tight security checks to spot any unwanted attention.

Those applying are also warned that they should not tell anyone other than a spouse or closer partner that they are putting their name in.

Unlike the MI5 site, there is no information on terrorist threats and the site is resolutely non-interactive. There are no opportunities to try your hand at any games to learn the 'tradecraft' of spies.

Staff who join SIS can look forward to....the certainty of a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond's, will be in the service of their country
MI6 website

Nor can you apply for a job on-line. It was decided that it was more important to keep the site safe from hackers.

So does this represent the 'normalisation' of MI6 into being just another part of government? Far from it. SIS will still be very much a secret service (or at least try and remain one).

The core work of the service in terms of operations and the identities of staff or agents (former and present) will all remain firmly out of bounds.

In fact, there is some hope that by clarifying the less sensitive areas, it will become easier to protect the inner core of secret work.

The complexities and tensions in trying to be a secret organisation but still look modern in a very open, public world are also evident on the site.

Pierce Brosnan played James Bond in Die Another Day, a Pinewood production
Pierce Brosnan most recently played British secret agent James Bond

On the one hand, there is a desire to dispel some of the myths and portray SIS as another part of government rather than a maverick organisation.

But there is still a desire to preserve some of the mystique which has served SIS so well over the years and which many believe helps recruit both staff and agents in the field.

In the frequently asked questions section, there is even an acknowledgement of the Service's most famous member of staff.

In answering the question of how close the depiction of the Bond films to real life might be, the website says that the gap between truth and fiction had widened even further from the books in which 'glamour and excitement' had been injected.

It adds that "nevertheless, staff who join SIS can look forward to a career that will have moments when the gap narrows just a little and the certainty of a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond's, will be in the service of their country".

The website is a recognition that intelligence now sits in a very different position from that of the days of the Cold War and 'spy versus spy'.

'Glamour and excitement'

Whether or not Britain's spies had managed to steal the Soviet order of battle was not something that the public would have felt any need or right to know about in the past.

However, in an age of terrorist attacks and pre-emptive war, the public has a far greater appetite for knowing what is being done to answer questions like what role Al Qaeda played in the London bombings, or how real the threat of a country's nuclear weapons programme might be.

The arrival of the SIS website is to some extent an acknowledgement of this rising tide of public interest.

But it also reflects a desire to exploit it, in the hope that just as more people want to know about the work of Britain's spies, so more may be willing to provide them with useful information or even decide to sign up to work among them.

Doing that successfully whilst maintaining the boundaries of secrecy is going to be the challenge.


What do you think about the new MI6 website?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.

It's a nice website and looks professionally done to me. The design with the subtle UK flag in the background looks great. The only problem is that it is too slow, but I'm sure that's because so many people are trying to access it at the moment.
Janice, Hayes, England

Looks just like a big advert for careers there. I'd like to see what they are doing about international terrorism and which countries they are monitoring closely. A lot of money goes into SIS and there seems to be little accountability.
Robin Clark, Brighton, England

The pay isn't as bad as it appears due to (constantly diminishing) expense accounts for agents in the field. True that desk staff wages fall short of what you'd expect, but like Bobby says - why should it be one wage for one department and a different one for another? The site has exceeded its bandwidth and with over 3 million hits in 6 hours, I think even the BBC would be pushed to stay available.
John, London, UK

At the end of the day they are a secret organisation helping keep this country going. I think they are quite daring to put up this site and giving people a tiny insight into SIS, but at the end of the day, they are secret and don't have to do this so be patient and stop moaning that you can't access it! Obviously half the country is trying to do the same thing.....P.S Steve, you are right about the pay, I had to up sticks and move North for better living, plus the commute to work is a drag!
Martyn, County Durham

I am amused to note that, although the site goes to great lengths to say that "MI6" is an obsolete designation, and that "Secret Intelligence Service" (SIS) is the correct title for the organisation, the site's address is "mi6.gov.uk"!
Chris Marriott, Manchester, UK

MI6's website is nothing special really, and seems to fall short of what the US intelligence agencies have been doing for many years now. American intelligence organisations such as the DIA and CIA have far superior websites with more extensive and clearer information, both for potential applicants and the general public. The important thing though is that SIS has followed the lead of American intelligence in realising that excessive secrecy will deny you some of the best potential applicants, as well as increase public mistrust.

Now all MI6 needs to do is to take a closer look at cia.gov to see what an excellent intelligence information and recruitment website should look like. As a first step though, the MI6 website is most welcome, and will only help to strengthen its recruitment capabilities as well increase the public's trust with regards to accountability and oversight.
Karl, Manchester, UK

OK so the site may be dreadfully slow because the address is being published on the news, but why does it have to look like it was built in 15 minutes by a child using a five-year-old browser program? It doesn't give me great confidence in the activities of this organisation if this is their official public face. Perhaps Q had already spent the whole technology budget...
Chris, Stevenage, UK

My browser timed out trying to access the site - that may be carrying secrecy a bit too far!
andy Grinnall, Edinburgh

Lovely lovely, but the pay is a disgrace and being in London it becomes more like a hobby than a profession, due to the cost of living.
Steve, London, UK

Well yes, Steve, the pay's inadequate for London, but that's true of the non-secret parts of the civil service too. There's no reason why MI6 should be treated any differently in that respect.
Bobby, London UK

SIS's site is available in five foreign languages, but not in the senior British language, Welsh, despite it being a legal obligation. Who would have thought it!
Huw Roberts, Caerdydd, Cymru

Website? What website? When I tried it had crashed under the load of so much publicity, which they clearly weren't expecting. Or perhaps they've changed their minds and have gone all secretive again.
John Carpenter, England

MI6 are obviously so secret that they couldn't hire a web designer to put to site together. What a terrible site!
Richard Michie, Sheffield, UK

An interesting move - but quite typical of ANY Government IT Project that the site is unobtainable - assume through overload! It would be good if they spent as much effort on applying Professional Project Management techniques.
Andrew Mair, Lee on Solent, UK

Tried to contact the site but there was a 'connection failure'
Lynn Craig, Gateshead, UK




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