Q, the twinkly-eyed boffin who provides James Bond with his trademark high-tech gadgetry, faces fresh competition. The heads of British intelligence are appealing to small and medium-sized technology companies to help to provide the gizmos they need for covert operations.
In the latest break with their traditions of secrecy the Security Service, MI5, and GCHQ, the secret communications agency, called on SMEs to develop “groundbreaking, cutting edge innovations” to help with following and identifying potential terrorists.
Until now MI5 and the General Communications Headquarters have procured secret equipment from a small group of trusted defense suppliers.
But they are now widening the net, calling on small-scale technology companies to develop gadgets that can trace and track suspects and sift through data on the web.
“This is a fast moving environment and you always have to think ahead,” a senior Whitehall official told the FT. “The agencies are perfectly happy with the quality of the equipment they have. But for the first time, they are appealing to a wide range of innovators, small and large, and saying: ‘Here are some problems we encounter. Can you solve them?’ ”
MI5 said it was looking for technology to help improve “covert surveillance”.
GCHQ says a particular concern is the difficulty it has sifting through the ever-expanding information in the internet. “Sorting through the large amount of data to extract ... significant trends is a complex challenge,” the organization said.
In their appeal to technology companies, the agencies said: “Much of our work is like trying to find the needle in haystack; or identifying the single threat from the background noise.”
They were therefore looking for “groundbreaking, cutting-edge innovations to augment our existing capabilities”.
One of the reasons why the agencies need to look harder at surveillance technologies is that jihadist groups have in recent years proved skilled users of the internet and data systems.
Q, the gadget-master of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, was of course famous in the Bond films and novels for his exasperation with Bond’s cavalier use of his high-tech equipment.
Whitehall officials insist that all three agencies—MI5, MI6 and GCHQ—use surveillance techniques that are strictly governed by UK laws.