Government Considers Selling GCHQ Security Expertise

The Government’s code breaking and eavesdropping service, GCHQ, could do work for hire

The Government has revealed it is considering offering the security expertise of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for possible sale or hire to the private sector.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee, the security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones told MPs that ministers were “thinking about” ways in which GCHQ could supply services to private firms, including turning the facility into a technology incubator, according to the BBC.

“It’s a live issue,” said Neville-Jones.

GCHQ is the highly secretive Government agency responsible for gathering intelligence, eavesdropping and breaking codes. Back in October, its director issued a rare public warning about the increasing sophisticated cyber attacks.

He said that the UK faced a “real and credible” attack on its critical infrastructure. He also said that other nations are increasingly using cyber methods to “bring diplomatic or economic pressure to bear.

GCHQ Commericalisation

According to the BBC, Dame Neville-Jones was asked by committee chairman, Labour MP Andrew Miller, whether the government was considering the “radical” step of the commercialisation of products, working in partnership with the the private sector.

“You are taking me on to ground, chairman, that we are thinking about,” Baroness Neville Jones told the MPs, adding that there were “many ways Cheltenham could supply a service to the private sector.”

It is understood that the Government is still considering how this would be funded, and how the relationship between this secretive organisation and private firms would play out in real life.

Not The First Time

While the idea that a secret agency such as GCHQ could work with the private sector could raise a few eyebrows, this is not the first time it has happened. The Labour administration oversaw the privatisation of the top secret Defence Evaluation and Research Agency back in 2006. It was floated on the stock exchange as Qinetiq, although the most sensitive parts of its work remained under government control.

The Government believes that its cyber security know-how would be potentially valuable in the private sector, and could help the government raise some much needed cash as it seeks to reduce the UK’s record budget deficit.

Expert Concerns

“It is commendable that the Government is seeking to recoup its investment in its interception modernisation programme,” said Rik Ferguson, senior security advisor at Trend Micro, speaking to eWEEK Europe UK.

That interception modernisation programme sought to improve the UK’s ability to intercept emails and other information, and was rumoured to have a £1 billion budget under the previous Labour government, although it is not certain what it is now after the new coalition government’s spending review.

“But my concerns about this are two fold,” Ferguson said. “Firstly there is the national security concern, whereby doing this could possible expose our code or technology to outsiders, essentially giving away the tools of the trade.”

“My second concern is over trying to get a secretive government agency that specialises in intelligence gathering, access to to the private sector,” Ferguson told eWEEK Europe UK. “Some companies would be uncomfortable allowing them into their heart of the network, bearing in mind Stuxnet etc. Companies want to be able to safeguard their IP.”