Anthony Hilton: Our spies should share their expertise to boost economy

GCHQ, the security services commun-ications centre at Cheltenham, is one of the most secretive establishments in the country but this week some of its top people emerged blinking into the sunlight to speak at a conference.

The audience were specially invited businessmen from many of our leading companies and the purpose was to make companies aware of how vulnerable they are not just to a disabling cyber attack, but to hackers stealing their best ideas and selling them to competitors.

Later it was announced that for the first time the security services were also reaching out to business to help solve some of their problems. It has always been a closely guarded secret where the spies' kit comes from, what they buy and what they develop themselves. But that policy has been modified. A Press release on Thursday from David Willetts' part of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills announced gchq was specifically going to encourage small technology companies to help it develop new tools to process the data it collects.

But there is more to it than that. We talk about how clever the people in our universities are and what a pity it is that the things they invent only ever seem to get developed and brought to market by foreign companies.

But one could probably say the same about GCHQ. It must have all sorts of clever ideas, applications and gadgets which would have huge commercial possibilities if allowed out in the real world. The Americans do this all the time, finding commercial applications for things developed by the security services. But we don't.

Traditionally when ministers have the temerity to suggest our spies become a bit more commercially minded they get warned off... or so one is led to believe though nothing is ever public. But perhaps these moves to use small businesses as problem solvers will lead to a new era of trust, which might develop into a willingness to allow the transfer of technology and allow the country to get some value from that world-beating expertise.