Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ could become an incubator lab for the country’s most talented tech entrepreneurs under a government plan for a new “spook first” training programme for graduates.
The idea is not just for those who want to spend a lifetime becoming spies. Whitehall officials are now examining whether recruitment to the secretive listening agency could be opened up to graduates who would ultimately like to set up their own companies or work in the commercial IT sector.
The scheme is being loosely modelled on the highly successful Teach First programme, where graduates agree to work in challenging schools for at least two years after leaving university with the prospect of a top-level commercial job at the end of it should they decide to leave the profession.
The Government is also examining whether any of GCHQ’s intellectual property could potentially have civilian and commercial applications – particularly in the realm of cyber security.
The initiative comes after ministers examined the success of Israel in nurturing tech entrepreneurs who have worked in the Israel Defence Forces’ Unit 8200 – its equivalent of GCHQ. Several alumni of Unit 8200 have gone on to found leading Israeli IT companies, among them the cyber-security company Palo Alto Networks, which is now worth around $10bn (£6.4bn), and the instant-messaging company ICQ, which was sold in 2010 to Digital Sky Technologies for nearly $200m.
The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude recently visited Israel, where he met alumni of Unit 8200 who have gone on to run their own tech businesses. “I have long admired the Israeli ‘start up’ nation which is home to more hi-tech start-ups per capita than any other country,” he told delegates at an international summit in London on his return.
While the Israelis have the advantages of national service to select the most promising cyber experts, Whitehall officials and the leaders of GCHQ believe there are elements of the scheme that could be successfully adapted.
In particular they believe a variation on the Teach First model could be used – encouraging the most promising graduates to spend time working for GCHQ before moving into the private sector.
“We have loads of talented people working for GCHQ – and there is no shortage of academic excellence,” said a Cabinet Office source.
“The question is can we create a secure space where business can work with GCHQ and build an eco-system between the two.
“It is not a million miles from Teach First and we have thought about that link.
“The idea is to say to graduates you do not have to sign up to GCHQ for your whole career and there are options for you in the private sector.
“There is more thinking to be done and a debate to be had about how it might work but we want to capitalise on the expertise in GCHQ in terms of IT commercialisation.”
A source in GCHQ added that they were also “interested” in the Israeli model alongside other partnerships with industry and academia to address the technical skills deficit in the UK.
They added that the fact that the UK does not have National Service made it difficult to mirror the Israeli model exactly, but there could “nevertheless be aspects of their approach that we can learn from”.
Brig Gen Hanan Gefen, a former commander of Unit 8200 and current consultant to hi-tech companies, recently told the technology magazine Wired that many areas of Israeli tech would have been fundamentally weaker were it not for technologies that came from 8200.
“Take Nice, Comverse and Check Point for example, three of the largest hi-tech companies, which were all directly influenced by 8200 technology,” Mr Gefen said.
“Check Point was founded by Unit alumni. Comverse’s main product, the Logger, is based on the Unit’s technology. Look at Metacafe (one of the world’s largest video sites). Eyal Herzog, one of the founders, is also an 8200 alumnus and he accumulated a huge amount of relevant experience in the Unit.”
Pictures of the year: UK News 2014
Pictures of the year: UK News 2014
1/93 January 2014
Swimmers in fancy dress participate in the New Year's Day Looney Dook swim at South Queensferry, Scotland
2/93 January 2014
A car drives through flood water on the Somerset Levels near Langport in Somerset
3/93 January 2014
Ian Dawes, the 'Chief Boggan' (L) and Phil Coggan, the 'Lord', enjoy a drink before the Haxey Hood game which is played every year on Old Christmas Day, in the village of Haxey near Doncaster
4/93 January 2014
Mark Duggan's family, along with Duggan's aunt Carrol Duggan (R), make a statement outside the High Court in central London
5/93 January 2014
A young girl looks at flowers and candles laid by members of the public near to the house in Ferry Gait Crescent where 3 year-old Mikaeel Kular was reported missing in Kirkcaldy
6/93 January 2014
Sheep graze in a field covered by early morning frost in Bolton Percy in North Yorkshire
7/93 January 2014
The Houses of Parliament and the river Thames are shrouded in early morning fog
8/93 January 2014
Preventive conservation co-ordinator at Historic Royal Palaces Jonathan Bridal inspects the Rubens ceiling paintings for damage during a conditioning survey at Banqueting House in London
9/93 February 2014
Newhaven lighthouse is battered by waves as high winds from the lastest winter storm continue in Newhaven on the south coast of England
10/93 February 2014
Flight Lieutenant Andy Power of 617 Squadron the Dambusters hugs his daughter Jessica aged seven as he arrives back at RAF Lossiemouth from Afghanistan in Lossiemouth, Scotland
11/93 February 2014
A congested Trafalgar Square during rush hour
12/93 February 2014
A letter sent by First World War sailor David John Phillips that has found its way to his granddaughter after 97 years, thanks to a blog post by archivists in Orkney - and leads provided by members of the public
13/93 February 2014
Bodhi looks up at a model of a hedgehog, measuring 12 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 7 feet tall, on Clapham Common in south London to mark the launch of the second series of David Attenboroughís Natural Curiosities on UKTV's Watch channel
14/93 February 2014
Prince Charles wearing traditional Saudi uniform, dances with sword during the traditional Saudi dancing best known as 'arda' performed during Janadriya culture festival at Der'iya in Riyadh
15/93 February 2014
The northern lights as they are commonly known at Embleton Bay in Northumberland
16/93 March 2014
Choristers from Ely Cathedral choir and The Very Reverend Mark Bonney take part in traditional pancake races before evening song at the Cathedral in Cambridgeshire
17/93 March 2014
Crocuses bloom at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London
18/93 March 2014
Milie (9) releases a red, heart-shaped balloon in Parliament Square in front of the Houses of Parliament as a symbolic marking of the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict in London. The image of a girl releasing a red balloon recreates the famous 'There Is Always Hope' graffiti on London's South Bank by Banksy
19/93 March 2014
Domhnall the Irish Wolfhound wears a shamrock after being presented it by Kate, The Duchess of Cambridge during a visit to the 1st Battalion Irish Guards at the St. Patrick's Day Parade at Mons Barracks, Aldershot
20/93 March 2014
Labour Party launch a new poster ahead of the Budget in London. The Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne will deliver his Budget statement to Members of Parliament in the House of Commons
21/93 March 2014
Work begins to demolish the end terrace cottage at Birling Gap near Eastbourne. The ex-coastguard cottage was in danger of collapsing after cliff erosion and was once one of seven properties, two of which were already demolished in the last two decades
22/93 March 2014
An artist's impression of bioluminescent fungi growing on a tree. In future, genetic engineering could produce city trees with trunks and branches that glow in the dark as future 'green' cities could resemble fairylands filled with radiant buildings and glowing trees. The bright vision of environmentally friendly cities was unveiled by Arup, the engineering and design consultancy behind London's Garden Bridge project
23/93 March 2014
An artist's impression of solar-powered pathways that shine at night which could help reduce street lighting in future cities as future 'green' cities could resemble fairylands filled with radiant buildings and glowing trees. The bright vision of environmentally friendly cities was unveiled by Arup, the engineering and design consultancy behind London's Garden Bridge project
24/93 March 2014
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne speaks with CEO of Tata Steel Europe Karl Koehler during a visit to the Tata Steel works in Port Talbot, Wales
25/93 April 2014
Butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the Natural History Museum's 'Sensational Butterflies' outdoor butterfly house in London
26/93 April 2014
Chelsea Pensioners Audrey Merton (L) Ron Ward (C) and Frank Treasure (R) react, during afternoon tea, at The Cavendish hotel in London
27/93 April 2014
Workers inspect one of the 30-storey Red Road residential blocks in north Glasgow
28/93 April 2014
People dressed as a 'Viking warrior-crew' sail along the River Thames near the Houses of Parliament in central London
29/93 April 2014
250 model lifeboats take to the River Thames in the RNLI's Alternative Boat Race to raise awareness and funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)
30/93 April 2014
Prime Minster David Cameron sows poppy seeds with pupils from Cathedral Primary School in Soutwark in the Downing Street garden in London, to help launch the Royal British Legion's poppy campaign - whereby the RBL will send every school in the country free poppy seeds to plant with the aim of helping to raise childrens awareness of conflict
31/93 April 2014
Jean Paul Gaultier poses with a metre high mohican in the Punk Cancan section of 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk' at the Barbican Art Gallery in London
32/93 April 2014
Prince William and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge talk with members of the Maori welcome group at an official welcome on the grounds of Government House in Wellington
33/93 April 2014
Guests listen during a speech by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in honour of the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins at the State Banquet during the Irish president's state visit in Windsor, west of London
34/93 April 2014
The new graffiti street art piece, suspected of being a Banksy, which appeared on the side of a house on Fairview Road adjacent to St. Anne's Terrace, Cheltenham
35/93 May 2014
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, jokes with a crowd of hundreds of women priests who posed on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral before going inside for a special service to celebrate twenty years since the ordination of women priests in London
36/93 May 2014
City Hall in London is turned into a giant rugby ball through light projection onto the building to mark 500 Days to go until the start of Rugby World Cup 2015
37/93 May 2014
Jamie Oliver joins children as they celebrate Food Revolution Day 2014 by cooking bread, making smoothies and creating salads at St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School in London
38/93 May 2014
An exhibitor takes photographs of her stand at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show at Royal Hospital Chelsea in London
39/93 May 2014
British Prime Minister Prime Minister David Cameron (L) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson wait for a train at Newark station in central England, following a visit to the town were they campaigned ahead of the Newark by-election
40/93 May 2014
The Mayor of London Boris Johnson wears a traditional headdress during a visit to the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, a major new Hindu temple being built in Kingsbury in London
41/93 May 2014
A photo of Stephen Sutton stands in Lichfield Cathedral ahead of a two-day vigil in his memory
42/93 June 2014
Queen Elizabeth II unveils a plaque marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the launch of international high speed rail services between the UK and mainland Europe at St Pancaras railway station in London
43/93 June 2014
Participants take part in the Color Me Rad 5km run at Ingleston in Edinburgh where the runners are blasted with bombs of different colours during the race
44/93 June 2014
Decorations and flags outside The Robin Hood public house in Jarrow
45/93 June 2014
A girl walks on the Bournemouth beach as a 25 foot high sea creature resembling Richard Branson emerges from the sea in Dorset, carrying a TV, laptop, phone and mobile to celebrate the launch of Virgin Media's Big Kahuna quad-play bundle
46/93 June 2014
US actress and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie (R) embraces Neema Namadamu of the DRC during the second day of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London
47/93 June 2014
An England fan with his face painted in the colours of his national flag and wearing a chain mail costume cheers prior to a Group D football match between England and Italy at the Amazonia Arena in Manaus during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
48/93 June 2014
Race-goer Jin Ye from China poses for a photograph in London
49/93 June 2014
Comedian Russell Brand holds a flyer for a pro-NHS demonstration as he speaks to a members of a crowd of thousands that gathered in Parliament Square to protest in London
50/93 June 2014
Fans of Andy Murray gather on 'Murray Mount' to watch the Gentlemen's Singles first round match between Andy Murray of Great Britain and David Goffin of Belgium on day one of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon in London
51/93 June 2014
Thousands of participants show up for the annual Gay Pride Parade in London
52/93 July 2014
Sheep painted in the colors of the Tour de France winners jerseys in fields near Harrogate where the race will pass
53/93 July 2014
Construction of new Crossrail stations in London hits halfway mark
54/93 July 2014
A large quantity of tyres alight at a recycling site in Renfrew, outside Glasgow
55/93 July 2014
Routemaster buses are driven through Finsbury Park during a gathering of the buses to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Routemaster in London
56/93 July 2014
The winning Henri Lloyd Clipper Round the World yacht returns to London as part of a victory parade, mooring at St Katharine's dock in London
57/93 August 2014
A reflection in a puddle of the light installation 'spectra' - made up of 49 individual spotlights which shoot up into the sky - by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda and ArtAngel, at Victoria Tower Gardens in London
58/93 August 2014
Volunteers sit in wooden boxes at Parliament Square, to represent living conditions in Gaza, during a protest in London
59/93 August 2014
A gold ribbon is displayed in Kings Cross station concourse during the launch of CLIC Sargent's gold ribbon appeal, as part of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, after a study by the cancer charity for children and young people, and their families, revealed a lack of public awareness of the "devastating" impact that childhood cancer has on families across the UK
60/93 August 2014
A giant inflated beach ball sits on the sand at Blackpool Beach in Blackpool
61/93 August 2014
The Blades display team take to the skies above Eastbourne, Sussex, as part of the town's annual Eastbourne Air Show
62/93 September 2014
Final preparations are made to the main conference room in the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, South Wales, on the eve of the NATO Summit
63/93 September 2014
'Hippopo Thames' is lifted into the Thames near the Victoria Dock before going up stream to Westminster in London
64/93 September 2014
The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire look at a piece by Chinese artist Xu Bing (L) entitled "Tao Hua Yuan: A Lost Village Utopia" during the Beyond Limits selling exhibition at Chatsworth House in central England
65/93 September 2014
Mayor of London Boris Johnson aboard the deck of the tall ship Tenacious, which is moored at Woolwich, in east London, as part of the month long Totally Thames festival
66/93 September 2014
The Hulk is spotted in London, escorting the brand new videogame Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes on its journey in the UK
67/93 September 2014
A "Yes" campaign flag flies from a derelict cottage on the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides
68/93 September 2014
Technical and maintenance teams spruce up the Royal Albert Hall, during a rare quiet day at the iconic London venue at the Royal Albert Hall in London
69/93 September 2014
Pearly Kings and Queens plant poppies at the Tower of London
70/93 September 2014
Over 350 people take to the water at Druridge Bay in Northumberland during an attempt to break the world skinny dip record
71/93 September 2014
A missing persons poster, requesting for information following the disappearance of 14-year-old Alice Gross from Hanwell, is accompanied by yellow ribbons in Hanwell town centre in west London. The hunt for Alice Gross, who went missing on 28 August is now being described as the largest police search operation since the 7/7 bombings of 2005
72/93 September 2014
A man navigating his barge down the Bridgewater Canal near Walton Hall, Cheshire
73/93 October 2014
Pumpkins at Oakley Farms in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, which have been harvested for Sainsbury's in-store Halloween activity. Following a hot summer and an unusually mild September, the pumpkins were picked earlier than usual. This has resulted in a bumper yield and Sainsbury's expects to sell 1.5 million pumpkins over the Halloween period
74/93 October 2014
Sheep are pictured as Freemen of the City of London re-enact their right to drive sheep across London Bridge in London
75/93 October 2014
A man wearing a British Prime Minister David Cameron mask holds a sign which reads 'Warmonger' stands with supporters of the 'Stop the war' coalition and 'Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament' as they march through central London, calling for the bombing of Iraq to stop
76/93 October 2014
British-American researcher John O'Keefe poses for pictures at his office in London, after winning the Nobel Medicine Prize with Norwegian couple, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, for discovering an 'inner GPS' that helps the brain navigate
77/93 October 2014
Actress Angelina Jolie is presented with the Insignia of an Honorary Dame Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1844 Room at Buckingham Palace, London
78/93 October 2014
Two paddleboarders make their way across Derwent Water near Keswick, Cumbria as autumnal weather continues across the UK
79/93 October 2014
Students from St Andrew's University indulge in a tradition of covering themselves with foam to honour the 'academic family' in St Andrews, Scotland. Every November the 'raisin weekend' which is held in the university's Lower College Lawn, is celebrated and a gift of raisins (now foam) is traditionally given by first year students to their elders as a thank you for their guidance and in exchange they receive a receipt in Latin
80/93 October 2014
Worshipers gather to pray in the temple during Diwali celebrations at Bhaktivedanta Manor Hare Krishna Temple in Watford
81/93 October 2014
Mayor of London Boris Johnson boxes with a trainer during his visit to Fight for Peace Academy in North Woolwich, London
82/93 October 2014
Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire is floodlit as it takes part in its annual illumination
83/93 November 2014
A woman dressed in a costume is pictured during the biannual 'Whitby Goth Weekend' (WGW) festival in Whitby. The WGW festival brings thousands of goths and alternative lifestyle fans from the UK and around the world over a weekend of music, dancing and shopping
84/93 November 2014
Paddington Bear statues, each with a different celebrity-designed paint job, are pictured in front of Tower Bridge during a photo call ahead of the release of 'The Paddington Trail' film in London
85/93 November 2014
Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, speaks to members of the public at a sold-out public meeting at Hoo Village Institute in Rochester
86/93 November 2014
A giant effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin to be burned is paraded by participants in costumes as they take part in one of a series of processions during Bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, southern England
87/93 November 2014
A view of a rainbow behind Tower Bridge in London
88/93 November 2014
The shortest man ever, Chandra Bahadur Dangi meets the worlds tallest man, Sultan Kosen for the very first time in London
89/93 November 2014
A customer poll of sweets purchased in favour of the party's contesting the Rochester and Strood by-elecction on display in the Sweet Expectations Sweet Shop in Rochester, Kent, on the final day of campaigning before the by-election later this week
90/93 November 2014
A protestor holds a flare as others parade with banners during a protest against university tuition fees in London
91/93 November 2014
Cadet Harry Alexander Hayes plants the last poppy during a remembrance day ceremony into the ceramic poppy art installation by artist Paul Cummins entitled 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' in the dry moat of the Tower of London
92/93 December 2014
Charity runners dressed as Father Christmas await the start of the 'Santa Run' charity fun run in Battersea Park in London. Hundreds of participants dressed in Santa suits and white beards ran through Battersea park in aid of winter sports charity Disability Snowsport in this 6km festive fun run
93/93 December 2014
Bob Geldof with checkout worker Ali Hallam at the Asda Trafford Park store in Manchester for the launch of the Band Aid 30 CD, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'
Roni Einav, another 8200 veteran who sold his company, New Dimension Software, to an American tech firm for $675 in 1999 and has since invested in dozens of Israeli tech start ups, told The Independent that it was all about bringing the brightest people together.
“The Israeli approach has been to select the very brightest people (doing national service) and then give them the opportunity to do significant projects within the Israeli Defence Force.
“I think if any organisation listens to and gives opportunities to clever people in their 20s then they are preparing well for the future. The fact of the matter is brilliant people are brilliant people and you may get the best of them when they are younger.
“It’s just an assumption but after 40 they may be losing their powers.”
He added: “The culture here is such that it encourages people to take risks. Unlike the UK we don’t have a significant domestic market so if you are a tech entrepreneur you have to look outside Israel’s borders and particularly to the USA if you are going to succeed.”
The UK move is part of wider efforts to ensure that the public sector fully exploits the opportunities of technology to deliver services to the public and cuts costs.
The UK last month hosted the first-ever meeting of a group of countries called the D5 which aims to swap expertise on digital development and commerce.
Cracking stuff: GCHQ's code app
Last month GCHQ released its first education app – to teach basic cryptography to secondary-school students.
The app is part of attempts by Britain’s spy agency to meet the demands of the National Cyber Security Strategy, which is designed to help businesses and the public sector to combat threats such as the North Korean cyber attack on Sony.
The app, called Cryptoy, teaches users how to create encoded messages which can be shared on social media and decrypted with the same app.
It was designed by students on a year-long industrial placement at GCHQ and is free to download on Android; an Apple version is expected later this year.
The agency has also set up 11 university centres and two virtual-research institutes.