Manufacturing

The spy who procured from me: GCHQ seeks SMEs

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Saturday, June 21, 2014 - 12:36 GMT Jump to Comments

Recruitment for GCHQ once happened discretely over a dry sherry with your college tutor. Now the agency recruits openly and wants to recruit SME suppliers too.

It is only a few decades since GCHQ – the UK’s main agency for communications surveillance – did not officially exist. Times change, and last week it invited journalists to a briefing at its IA14 information security conference in London. Although the works of US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, which have provided controversial insights into the agency’s working practices, were off the agenda, GCHQ’s enthusiasm for small and medium sized suppliers was very much on it.

GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 don’t publish accounts; the government only discloses that they have a combined Single Intelligence Account budget of £2bn. But given the scale of GCHQ’s requirements, an informed guess of its annual technology budget would run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

It clearly does a lot of work for itself; one of the agency’s announcements last week was that it is planning to release some of its intellectual property where this would not compromise secrecy, through methods including joint-ventures or open source software. But it also buys a lot of technology from suppliers, and wants to make greater use of smaller firms.

According to officials at the briefing, suppliers aiming to sell to GCHQ should look for ‘open calls’ made through the Technology Strategy Board and the MoD’s Centre for Defence Enterprise. These are used by the parts of the UK government with particular technology requirements to make their needs known, with matched or full funding available for suitable projects.

GCHQ and other secure parts of government are also working to minimise the security requirements for smaller firms; they want to ensure access to smart people in small firms, not least because these companies may be more agile and flexible than big corporations.

GCHQ’s director Sir Iain Lobban told the IA14 conference that the agency has been “heartened by the huge response” to the open calls it has made so far. “We made contact with hundreds of companies, mostly SMEs, and ended up sponsoring a few dozen ‘seedcorn’ tasks to take an initial idea through to a proof of concept,” he said. “Some of those tasks are now being taken forward to the next stage. We’re going to do more of this and have baked a strong SME element into our major industry procurement programme.”

It should be said that SMEs are unlikely to displace large firms entirely; many were sponsoring the IA14 event, led by defence giant Northrop Grumman.

If things work out, it is even now possible to say you are supplying Her Majesty’s Government. In the past, anyone asking a small firm in the information security field if they had any customers might get vague hints about a large client in the Cheltenham area, where GCHQ is based. Now, while a supplier is not going to get any kind of endorsement, there is a scheme allowing it to confirm that it sells to the state sector.

In 1969, GCHQ employee James Ellis invented public key cryptography, a major breakthrough in encryption technology, with two colleagues helping him to develop the idea. The agency kept this secret, but the technique was independently developed in the US outside the secret sphere under the RSA brand, and is now a standard method for encrypting information online.

In 1997, GCHQ acknowledged Ellis’ achievements – and looks keen to ensure that in future, at least some ideas and technologies can pass between the secret and the public worlds. It may be an unusual place to seek business, but the future is likely to see more small suppliers with the right services and products finding themselves on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban’s speech to IA14

Technology Strategy Board

Centre for Defence Enterprise

GCHQ offers public and private sectors help against cyber attacks (TheInformationDaily.com, November 2012)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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