Former MI5 boss warns of new terror frontier

London: A couple of years ago Jonathan Evans was staying at a "ritzy hotel" in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, when he was confronted with an automated toilet seat.

"It had all sorts of controls on it in order that you could warm it up and it had all sorts of squirty things and I thought 'well that's novel' but actually you can get an android app which enables you to control your toilet seat from afar," the former boss of British intelligence agency, MI5, told an audience at Australia House in London.

"But I also saw an article saying that these actually have a standard security setting of 0000 which most people never change so you have this potential for hacking into your neighbour's toilet seat," he said.

Citing the High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer's, "shy and effacing" manner, Lord Evans declined to elaborate on the article he had read about "cyber sex toys".

But he said the experience had taught him about a potential new cyber frontier for terrorists using the cyberworld as a "vector for attack" by hacking into vital infrastructure or other tangible objects that are linked to the internet.

" Both are not national security issues but what they of course demonstrate is that this is not just about data, this is about real objects and the fact that you can now take control of a car that hasn't got protections on it," he said.

"Much of our national infrastructure is enabled through a digital dimension and therefore potentially hackable. These are real issues both for national security and for any other event that might be subject to attack," he said.

Lord Evans said he was surprised this threat had not materialised so far.

"It's a puzzle to me because actually you could create physical damage through cyber attack - particularly as we move towards an environment where almost everything is connected to the internet - and therefore you can hack into it and create physical damage," he said.

Lord Evans directed MI5, Britain's spy agency, between 2007 and 2013 and oversaw the security for the London Olympic games which were staged without any attack. He was giving security advice to organisers of large conferences at a lunch arranged by Business Events Sydney and the International Convention Centre.

He revealed how "community spying" whereby MI5 officers turned up on the doors of potential attackers before the Olympic Games "suppressed" the likelihood of them carrying out an attack.

"We arrived there at six o'clock in the morning and we did it in a coordinated way with the police and we said 'hello we just wanted to ask whether you were thinking of coming to the Olympics'.

"And this of course, really put the wind up [them] because they didn't know that we knew about them and every time that this happened they then get in touch with their friends and they said 'yeah, yeah, they were here as well,' and so we tried to deter them from doing anything which actually seems to have worked."

Describing himself as an "analogue" spy whose early work in espionage involved "running around cars" and following them to London's embassy district, Lord Evans described the threat of a cyber attack as a "tier one national security threat".

He said all smart criminals were moving online and it made sense that terrorists were too. He said he had "no doubt" states like Russia would continue to use the "opportunities afforded by the digital environment" to "create an atmosphere of distrust in democratic institutions". US intelligence agencies say they have proof Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential elections, a claim the Kremlin denies.

Lord Evans has recently warned that the "the huge upswell in threat" posed by the rise of Islamic State is likely to continue for another two decades.

He said that, when he left MI5 in 2013, they thought they had successfully confronted Islamic terrorism, then posed by al-Qaeda.

"If somebody had asked me, I would have said that we would probably see a long tail but this was of one of those issues which we had not kind of got on top of but which we could see the end.

"Fortunately no-one did ask me that so I didn't say it, because if had said it I would have been proved comprehensively wrong."

He said the type of crude attacks being carried out in the name of IS were much harder to disrupt because the terrorists had scaled back the ambition of their attacks from 9/11 plots to vehicle rammings and stabbings, requiring less planning and coordination and making them harder to detect.

"Those days are past and so we are now in a situation where just anyone can hire a car and mount some form of attack, not a strategically threatening attack but certainly one that could cause death and misery and one which will attract media attention."

He said overall, the agencies were disrupting the majority of attacks before they took place but warned not all can ever be prevented.

Europe has suffered multiple attacks this year, with the vehicle ramming in Barcelona and five attacks in the United Kingdom since March.

This week the Home Office released data of its intervention program called PREVENT, which critics complain is akin to spying.

In 2015/16, 7,631 individuals in Britain were referred to the program with a third of those referrals made by teachers and education workers.

Of the 7,631 people, 78 per cent were male and 56 per cent were aged under 20.

Lord Evans said working with minority communities to reduce the threat was "very difficult" but said overall members of those communities were "sensible people".

"They know there are bad things happening and they don't want them on their watch."

He said the British police had made efforts to create dialogue with community groups and said it was vital those links were made during quieter times so that if arrests needed to be made they weren't carried out by "faceless" law enforcement officers.

"If this is being done to you by a faceless state that you don't know anything about then you can be find it frightening or infuriating," he said.

"If, on the other hand, you know you've got people in the police who you trust...who've demonstrated that they care about you and who are there and can say, 'look this is what's been happening and this is why', that does seem to make a big difference to the response."

This story Former MI5 boss warns of new terror frontier first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.