GCHQ to mentor 11 Manchester startups to improve cyber security in smart devices

Mike Wright
GCHQ's headquarters in Cheltenham - PA

GCHQ is sending its 'spies' to work with UK start-ups to help prevent gadgets becoming hackable.

The Government cyber agency announced it will be working with 11 tech companies in Manchester that are developing smart systems and devices as part of an 'accelerator' scheme.

It will see GCHQ experts advising the companies on how to make their connected gadgets and services secure, some of which include smart streetlights that can sense how much daylight is left and home heaters that adjust according to weather forecasts.

It comes as a former Government security worker told The Telegraph the rapid growth of internet-connect devices, such as smart watches and fridges, was creating more ways for hackers to steal personal information as well as commercial and state secrets.

David Stupples, who is now a Professor of Electronics and Radio Engineering at City University of London, said the number of internet-connected devices would “explode in the next five years”.

As well as the convenience and benefits these smart items would bring, he said security services were now looking at the new ways they could be exploited by criminals and rogue states.

“What you can do is if you can hack into a device in a home, like a fridge, that could actually get you into the iPhone,” said Prof. Stupples. “And if the iPhone connects into a company’s systems because the person works there then there’s a vector that would possibly allow them to get malware into the company. 

“So what we are actually doing by having those [smart devices] is we are increasing the number of entry points.”

The 16-week accelerator programme will see not see GCHQ experts work directly on developing the products but instead advising the companies on “improving citizen safety”.

The 11 companies were selected from dozens of applicants and are working on a range of smart products. Among the ideas are smart watches that can contact the emergency services and smart homes that can monitor the condition of vulnerable or elderly people.

This is the second group of companies to be mentored by GCHQ, which advised four Manchester companies last year in the inaugural round of the accelerator scheme.

Prof. Stupples said that working with the private sector could also help provide GCHQ with new ideas and technology that could then be used by the security services.

He added: “You have to think of numbers, as if you think of all the companies in the country, they employ some very bright people and will possibly be as bright as the people who work at Cheltenham, there will also be a lot more of them. So therefore an economy of scale works here.”

The scheme comes after GCHQ announced last year it is opening a new office in Manchester city centre’s Albert Square, which will eventually house hundreds of its staff.

The agency, which celebrated its centenary last year, has its main headquarters in Cheltenham as well as offices in Bude in Cornwall, Scarborough and London.

GCHQ works alongside MI5 and MI6 to disrupt cyber threats and attacks on UK infrastructure and traces its modern origins back to the work carried out by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in the Second World War.

Announcing the latest accelerator scheme businesses, Gav Smith, GCHQ’s Director General for Technology said: “These businesses have real potential to improve people’s lives in an increasingly digitally connected world, from helping the elderly to reducing emissions.

“We’re excited to be supporting the thriving technology ecosystem in Greater Manchester, connecting ingenious entrepreneurs and creative technologists with the mission of GCHQ to help tackle some of our hardest challenges.”