UK’s mini-DARPA to spend millions on cybersecurity

Brid-Aine Parnell

Thursday 28 January 2016

Details of the government’s proposed funding are thin, but it could spark the next big thing in security technology

The government has promised big investment in cybersecurity, with a multi-million pound fund for startups that could help to put the UK at the forefront of security technology.

While other sectors are facing cuts, last year’s budget set aside huge wads of cash to support the tech industry – particularly in cybersecurity. As well as doubling public spending on fighting cybercrime to £1.9 billion a year by 2020, the chancellor George Osborne also announced a £165 million fund for investment into cybersecurity startups.

Defence of the realm

The Defence and Cyber Innovation Fund, dubbed Britain’s very own DARPA by media outlets, intends to “support innovative procurement over both defence and cybersecurity”, Osborne explained in a speech at Britain’s intelligence hub GCHQ in November.

“It will mean that we support our cyber sector at the same time as investing in solutions to the hardest cyber problems that government faces,” he added.

“If the lights go out, the banks stop working, the hospitals stop functioning or government itself can no longer operate, the impact on society could be catastrophic.”

It is vital work, but when it comes to the fund, at least, the government has not offered much by way of detail so far. Further information was promised for early this year, but it has yet to materialise. Neither the Treasury nor GCHQ were able to elaborate on the fund when contacted by Think Progress, and the Cabinet Office have not responded to a request for comment.

A search for detail

At the time of the announcement, the Treasury was able to confirm that the money would be going to startups that were building cybersecurity technologies of interest to the government and its intelligence agencies. No other criteria have yet come up. It’s also presently unclear if these startups need to be based in Britain or, indeed, if the government has specific kinds of security tech in mind.

One titbit of information did appear in the government’s Defence Science blog earlier this month, under a posting about the military’s New Year resolution to boost defence innovation.

“The new £165 million Defence and Cyber Innovation Fund supports procurement of innovative solutions to the challenges facing the Armed Forces,” the blog offers.

Without further detail about just how the money will be allocated, it’s difficult to know how much of a difference the fund can make. Comparisons to DARPA are all very well, but that body has a much wider remit and far deeper pockets than this proposed incubator.

That said, the UK has already proved fertile ground for tech startups, so the idea that the next big thing in cybersecurity could be dreamt up in a British café is perhaps not that far-fetched. After all, many of the biggest names in tech started out just as humbly.

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