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.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map