The CIA has recruited British defence and hi-tech companies in an attempt to acquire the latest technology for its spying missions and intelligence-gathering.
The British firms, including the mobile-phone company Hutchison 3G and aerospace contractor BAE Systems, are helping the CIA to develop sophisticated map reading, 3-D mapping and computer communications techniques.
In conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan, these projects would potentially allow CIA agents in the war zone to translate an obscure reference to a building, village or cave into a 3-D photo-realistic map of the area via laptops and satellite phones.
One project funded by the CIA uses raw data provided by the Ordnance Survey based on its digital maps of the UK, sparking criticism from MPs.
One Labour MP said the projects raised major questions about whether these relationships were in Britain's interests. Alan Simpson, a senior member of the left-wing Campaign group of backbenchers, said: "Where does this take the CIA? If we're giving them the ability to plot grid references to any house in Britain, it raises fundamental questions about whether this is in the national interest."
The CIA, the world's largest and most powerful intelligence agency, has been under immense pressure to catch up with the rapid developments and spread of computer and internet technology over the past decade. Its directors admit that the size and reach of the internet has left it struggling to catch up. In 1999, it set up a unique private company called In-Q-Tel to invest about $30m a year in hi-tech companies and research projects.
"We make investments in companies where we have a strategic interest in the technology," a spokeswoman said.
Five British firms have become collaborators or contractors for In-Q-Tel through a US-dominated alliance of more than 220 private companies, government agencies and universities called the Open GIS Consortium (OGC) to develop common technological standards for computers.
In one project overseen by OGC, Hutchison 3G is a partner with In-Q-Tel and five US firms to design a system which allows wireless links between computers. The mobile-phone company Vodaphone is a contractor and the British companies Laser-Scan and its owner, Yeoman Group, have become observers in the project.
In another project, In-Q-Tel has hired a division of BAE Systems and Laser-Scan, which makes digital and internet maps, to develop ways of linking geographical data from separate sources – a technique known as inter-operability. This project uses Ordnance Survey data.
Laser-Scan is also involved with the Military Mapping Project, where the CIA and US Army is developing further sophisticated 3-D mapping techniques, such as sending them via the internet, in a restricted project also overseen by OGC.
British companies appear to have avoided the most controversial projects funded by In-Q-Tel. One US firm called SafeWeb had been paid to give the CIA the ability to snoop on internet web sites without being detected.
All the companies and agencies involved insisted the projects were above board, and Ordnance Survey stressed that its data was used simply for research purposes.
In-Q-Tel denied that it required its contractors to sign secrecy deals with the CIA, or expected to control the results of its projects with OGC.