E-commerce joins the underground economy

Stephen McLaren meets the head of AL Digital, an information technology company that is taking the concept of secure servers and data protection to a new level

You can tell AL Digital is keen on data security. While I am waiting to be ushered into the bowels of its new data centre, 300ft underground in a recently converted RAF command bunker in Kent, the on-site PCs are taking part in a global cryptography competition.

AL Digital's computers were participating in the DES III Challenge, which is an attempt to break the latest 56bit cryptography standards in record time (see Bytes, left). The aim of this exercise - according to Adam Laurie, AL Digital's owner - was to prove that the level of encryption the US government believes is strong enough for individuals is anything but. In the end, a rival effort using a specially-built supercomputer broke the code in 22 hours and won its operators $10,000.

AL Digital runs on a strong streak of paranoia about the vulnerability of data to hostile eyes, whether they belong to hackers, terrorists, government or the police. Hence Laurie doesn't want his face identified in the photographs, and his prized possession is an everything-proof bunker that he envisages will become a repository for data belonging to similarly paranoid businesses, such as banks and insurance companies.

As we toured the cold grey concrete corridors, only occasionally brightened by leftover RAF "Do Not..." banners, Laurie explained his vision.

"We do a lot of security-based work for clients and we noticed how physically insecure many companies' servers were," he said. "So we started looking for a facilities-managed site to operate for clients, and when this came on the market we thought, bingo!

"It's designed exactly for the purpose we are putting it to, which is securely housing computers, and built to a spec you could never achieve in the commercial world. To build one above ground from scratch would cost around pounds 100m."

So if you are a suitably-paranoid entrepreneur with data-critical servers needing a good home, what do you get for your money? Well, for about pounds 15,000 a server you get an environment which is protected by an electric fence, security guards, CCTV, bomb-proof doors, decontamination units and concrete walls five metres thick. Diesel generators and banks of batteries keep the whole facility running independently of what is going on in the outside world. When Laurie says he would recruit armed guards, if allowed, you believe him, though I do feel obliged to suggest a degree of overkill.

"Well, the IRA bomb in the City caused extensive damage to banks and data centres and presumably it was placed there for that very reason. Thankfully no terrorist organisation has bombs big enough to cause damage to the blast doors down here. And anyway, the building is being put to good use, it would have been a shame for it to go to waste."

Since the previous owners were in the communications business, albeit under potential nuclear war conditions, Laurie mentions that bandwidth into the bunker isn't an issue, since the RAF laid miles of fibre-optic cable which is just waiting to be brought on-stream. This means that only a very basic level of supervisory staff needs to be around at any one time, adding to the noticeably spooky atmosphere in the maze of strip- lit concrete.

"It's very spooky at night and you keep thinking what it must have been like when it was humming away 24 hours a day, monitoring possible nuclear attacks. Some people who've come round since we bought it a few months ago, haven't been able to make it past the blast doors because it feels too oppressive."

AL Digital, however, seems to thrive in the underground: as well as running the Internet pirate radio station Interface,, it is the author of Apache SSL Open Source software that enables strong encryption to be added to Apache servers, which are the most numerous on the Web. This means that credit card payments made via such servers are protected by 128bit encryption, which has yet to be cracked even by the most powerful supercomputer.

Indeed, it is their championing of strong cryptography which says more about AL Digital's attitude to data security than even the physical security of their new abode.

"The US government says 56bit encryption is good enough for the public, we say: `No it's not, watch, we've cracked it'," Laurie says. "One of the reasons e-commerce is still poised to take off is because the tools to keep data secure are not strong enough. I believe it would take off massively if crypto restrictions were removed."

Although much of what the company is railing against originates in Washington, the Labour Government's Electronic Commerce Bill - which was in Cabinet discussion last week - may be a source of future problems for Adam Laurie and his company. The Government is expected to put restrictions on those companies offering cryptography services which don't make the code-breaking keys available to authorities on demand. Adam Laurie's bunker may be 300ft under, but even that may not be deep enough to avoid the long arms of such a law.

As yet, the deep vaults remain relatively empty, awaiting the expected hordes of businesses which, Laurie hopes, will come to realise that in the network economy, data has exactly the same value as cold hard cash. If bank vaults are deemed the necessary storage arrangements for money, then perhaps such bunkers are indeed the logical place to store all those beige boxes which hold our credit card numbers.

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