Spy school for startups

Exploding laptops & digital detectives: the 9 hopefuls in GCHQ’s new spy school

By Anna Schaverien 19 October 2017

Not-so top secret tools for cyber security.

The government’s intelligence branch isn’t usually one for revealing its secrets.

But we’re very lucky that GCHQ shared the list of companies set to join its startup accelerator, run in partnership with Wayra UK.

Businesses in GCHQ Cyber Accelerator’s second cohort focus on solving cyber security issues, as you might expect.

But their missions range from detecting dodgy crypto-currency transactions to security for the Internet of Things, and gadgets that can wipe a laptop’s data remotely.

Companies chosen for the security centre’s nine-month programme receives funding of £25,000 and help growing their business, mentoring, and access to experts at GCHQ, the National Cyber Security Centre, and Telefónica.

Here are the nine startups that GCHQ believes are the future of cyber security:

A chip that can explode your computer (almost)

ExactTrak’s technology wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film.

The chip that can wipe a laptop’s data from anywhere in the world took ExactTrak founder Norman Shaw and his team five years to develop.

But it’s paid off for him in a big way: his 100% British-built technology is being embedded into AMD processors, and everyone from Formula 1 to the Home Office is using his kit.

ExactTrak's chip embedded into a laptop's processor can wipe its data remotely. Image: ExactTrak.

He had a variety of roles beforehand, including helping to launch Sony’s first laptop, and was selling IBM laptops to schools when he had his eureka moment.

“The laptops were being stolen and that’s when I thought: their hardware value is decreasing, but the value of their data is increasing,” he told The Memo.

ExactTrak uses GPS and a cellular radio to know exactly where a laptop is at any time and the owner can communicate with it, even if the device is turned off.

“If your laptop suddenly goes walkabout and you have sensitive information on there, you can send it a coded command to wipe the hard disk drive completely,” he explained.

They initially designed a USB product, but the best thing about it being embedded into the computer hardware itself is that it can’t be easily hacked.

Perfect for corporate businesses, governments, or anyone with a secret to keep, it’s the ultimate security tool to keep your sensitive data safe.

And the good thing is, Shaw has plans for expanding the chip not only to laptops but tablets, mobile phones, and high-value Internet of Things devices too.

“It is really giving people visibility as to where their data is, where it’s being used and if it’s getting into the wrong hands,” Shaw told The Memo.

Elliptic is the team working to reduce criminal use of crypto-currencies

The rise of crypto-currencies created a whole new challenge for crime investigators.

How do you track down a criminal who used bitcoin?

Elliptic is the answer: the startup, founded in 2013 by three Brits with backgrounds in finance and computing.

Elliptic's co-founders.

The company works with law enforcement agencies to detect and investigate cyber crime that’s enabled by bitcoin and Ethereum.

“We believe in bitcoin and crypto-currencies. But in order to make them more accountable, we have to eliminate criminals’ use of them,” Simone Maini, COO at Elliptic, told The Memo.

As the use of crypto currencies continue to grow, police forces might struggle to understand the challenge they’re facing.

Elliptic is stepping in as the experts to call on in these cases.

“We like to make sure we are supporting people who are not sure how to conduct bitcoin investigations,” Maini said.

Best of the rest 

The other startups accepted onto the GCHQ programme are doing just as important work in cyber security.

Secure Code Warrior starts at the source with its gamified platform that teaches developers how to write secure code.

It’s always a risk putting security in the hands of employees who might click on phishing e-mails, so Cybershield alerts workers to spam emails before they click them.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so Intruder monitors your online systems for weaknesses and identifies them before the hackers do.

Protecting children online is increasingly difficult as their tech skills are often better than their parents’, so TrustElevate solves the problem of age verification and parental consent for online purchases.

Ioetec aims to solve the notoriously difficult problem of giving Internet of Things devices end-to-end security.

Specifically designed for transport companies, RazorSecure’s software gives planes, trains, and cars protection against cyber attacks.

And finally, Warden detects any suspicious activity on users’ online accounts, so hacks can be dealt with in real-time.

The accelerator started its first phase earlier this year, with seven startups going through a three-month programme, which has now been extended and expanded.

The enhanced programme will bring world-leading support to some of the UK’s most innovative companies – helping them develop the skills and cutting-edge technology that will better protect us all from any future cyber attacks,” said Matt Hancock, minister of state for digital. 

For more information on the startup hub, head to the GCHQ Cyber Accelerator website.