British firm scores with cybersecurity breakthrough


Click to follow
The Independent Online

A British firm could be set to net billions of pounds after making a major breakthrough in cybersecurity.

Scientists at Scentrics, working with University College London, say they can guarantee total privacy for emails and text messages. 

It also means that for the first time laptop and smartphone users will be able to connect to wifi hotspots on the move without worrying about hackers. Only the security services would be able to gain access to the messages, if they needed to.

The Scentrics application can be embedded into a mobile handset or computer device, enabling the user to obtain “one-click privacy” at the press of a button. Or it can be downloaded as an app, so the sender can pay a small fee for security every time, for instance, they send an image of family or friends over the internet.

Despite the discovery having been made, tested and developed in the UK, ownership is likely to travel abroad. Scentrics, an algorithm research company which is backed by investors such as Vitol’s boss Ian Taylor and David Svendsen, the former head of Microsoft Europe, is attracting enormous interest from giant tech companies in the US and Japan. The company is headed by a computer scientist and mathematician, Paran Chandrasekaran, who used to be technology counsellor to the Prince of Wales’ Business Advisory Board.

“In terms of British Intellectual Property [IP], it is only dwarfed by the invention of the world wide web itself,” said Mr Chandrasekaran. “The internet was born without this in its DNA and we’ve done it.”

He explained: “What we’ve done is to patent the IP for a standards-based, fully automatic, cryptographic key management and distribution protocol for UMTS and TCP/IP.”

In layman’s terms, the company and UCL have found a way of defeating what cryptologists call “the man-in-the-middle attack” or MITM – the ability of someone to hack and intercept an electronic message. 

Until now, said Mr Chandrasekaran and Professor Anthony Finkelstein, dean of the faculty of engineering sciences at UCL, there has been no foolproof way of blocking a third person from gaining access to the electronic conversation. They say that is due to change. “If you possess a computing device you will possess Scentrics’ solution for key management,” said Mr Chandrasekaran.

Earlier this year, another company which had been working closely with UCL, the artificial intelligence start-up DeepMind, was sold to Google for £400m. Scentrics looks set to be worth a lot more.