Plaque unveiled for first MI6 chief Mansfield Cumming

Sir Mansfield Cumming Image copyright Private collection
Image caption The plaque was unveiled in memory of the first chief of the Secret Service, Sir Mansfield Cumming

The head of MI6 has unveiled a blue English Heritage plaque in Whitehall.

It marks the location at 2 Whitehall Court where his predecessor - ­the first "C" or chief of the Secret Service, Sir Mansfield Cumming - lived and worked.

In the world of James Bond the head of MI6 may be known as M, but in real life he is C -­ named after Cumming. Some of Cumming's traditions remain, ­such as the chief using green ink to sign letters.

Alex Younger used his first public speech since becoming the 16th C to compare the Secret Service which Cumming ran between 1909 and 1923 with that of today.

Mr Younger recalled that on his first day in MI6 he had been told that Cumming had cut off his own leg with a penknife to escape the wreckage of a car crash.

This story may actually not be true, he acknowledged, but it added to the mythology (Cumming also was said to stab his leg in front of potential recruits in his office without them realising it was a wooden leg, to assess their reaction).

Image caption Alex Younger said his predecessor would appreciate the way today's MI6 staff used guile and creativity

Spying 'transformed'

The current Chief of MI6 said the central task of recruiting agents who work overseas to pass on information had remained the same.

He added that now, as then, secrecy had to remain over who they were.

The threats, though, had changed - and Mr Younger said MI6 now existed to protect Britain from the dark side of globalisation.

Technology has always been part of MI6. Cumming loved fast cars and secret inks.

Today, though, technology in the form of the internet and data has transformed the spying business, ­ making it easier to find potential agents but also for the other side to do the same to you.

There was no overt reference to the revelations from former US intelligence worker Edward Snowden, but the debate over the capabilities of spy agencies is likely to be one that will draw considerable attention from the new MI6 chief.

Image caption The plaque at 2 Whitehall Court marked where Sir Mansfield Cumming lived and worked

'Technological arms race'

"Using data appropriately and proportionately offers us a priceless opportunity to be even more deliberate and targeted in what we do and thus be better at protecting our agents and this country," Mr Younger said.

"That is good news. The bad news is that the same technology in opposition hands, an opposition often unconstrained by consideration of ethics and law, allows them to see what we are doing and put our people and agents at risk."

Mr Younger said there was a technological arms race with MI6's adversaries and he said his task was to keep the British Secret Service in the premier league by developing capabilities fit for the data age.

Other changes from Cumming's day included the fact that MI6 is now publicly acknowledged by the government and scrutinised by others.

Mr Younger said this was an advantage even though he said that after a lifetime of cultivating a lower profile than anyone else in the room, he found it daunting to suddenly see his name out in the public.

The type of people who worked for MI6 had also been transformed, he said, as the service draws from a wider range of backgrounds.

But for all the change over the past century, Mr Younger said that he thought if Cumming could walk into the modern MI6 he would share his successor's satisfaction at the way staff used guile and creativity to put one over on those who meant Britain harm.

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