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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition