How to become a great spy agency in the 21st century: Incubate startups..!!

What results when a top secret intelligence agency turns to entrepreneurs to assist in the building of new tools to protect a nation from cyberattacks? This is it….

Intelligence agencies are great at finding out and keeping secrets, and at working patiently in the shadows. Startups are good at promoting themselves, moving fast, and breaking things—in an effort to build the next big technology. It’s hard to think of two mindsets that are further apart.

However in a world of constantly evolving cybersecurity threats, Britain’s GCHQ spy agency decided to open a startup accelerator to bridge the gap between the two: to see, if it was a little more open, it could help the private sector build tools to prevent cyberattacks in the future..

Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has a century-long history of helping to protect the country from threats, both international and domestic.

Although it wouldn’t be known as GCHQ for decades to come, its work began during World War I when a number of intercept stations were established to seize and decrypt messages sent by Germany and its allies. Its most famous incident came in early 1917 when analysts were able to intercept and decrypt a telegram sent by the German foreign minister Count Zimmermann, in which was revealed that Germany planned to reward Mexico with US territory if it joined the war. The release of the message was one of the factors which brought the United States’ firepower into the war.

During World War II, the organisation, then called the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), was located at Bletchley Park where it tirelessly undertook to decrypt Hitler’s “unbreakable” ciphers—work credited with shortening the war significantly.

SEE: Defending against cyberwar: How the cybersecurity elite are working to prevent a digital apocalypse (TechRepublic cover story)

Following the war and having outgrown its previous site, GC&CS was renamed GCHQ. Its headquarters were moved just outside of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in the west of England, where it remains today.

It now has 6,000 staff and an annual budget of £2.6bn, while still being tasked to keep Britain safe from a variety of threats including terrorism, serious crime, espionage, and cyberattacks, as well as providing support to law enforcement and the military when required.

But its work is not without controversy. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden lifted the lid on PRISM, an expansive online surveillance programme by GCHQ, along with the US National Security Agency. The programme collected data on all online and telephone communications made inside the UK.

But while the agency is best known for snooping, it also has a secondary role in providing security advice.

“We’re a security organisation. If you drive past us you see a lot of razor wire and that can sometimes create an internal, introverted culture,” said Chris Ensor, deputy director of cyber skills and growth at the National Cyber Security Centre (also known as NCSC, the cybersecurity arm of GCHQ).

“For the last 100 years, GCHQ has had an intelligence mission and a security mission. It’s the intelligence which is portrayed in the news or in films like James Bond and we’re always the spy centre. But actually we’ve had a security mission for a long, long time,” said Ensor.

Threats to national security evolve over time and today cyberattacks are considered to be among the biggest risks to the country—alongside terrorism, espionage, and weapons of mass destruction.

That means GCHQ’s security mission has extended to protecting the UK from cyberattacks and hackers, particularly those targeting critical national infrastructure. Indeed, the NCSC was set up to tackle cyberthreats, replacing three separate cybersecurity organisations: the Centre for Cyber Assessment, Computer Emergency Response Team UK, and GCHQ’s information security arm.

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