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.”
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.
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