When James Bond encounters Q in Skyfall, tousle-haired actor Ben Whishaw gives 007 a lesson in where the world of intelligence gathering is headed.
“I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field,” the fictional intelligence officer says.
His real world employer, however, may soon be relying on private sector Big Tech data scientists to provide agents with the latest intelligence.
Amazon is reported to have signed a deal with GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 for its cloud computing arm to run big data tasks for the UK’s three spy agencies. It would make Skyfall’s plot, of an ex-MI6 agent stealing a hard drive with top secret information, a thing of the past as espionage goes digital.
The cloud service will be designed to store top secret information, according to the Financial Times, and enable spies to securely feed in data from field locations.
Amazon will also use artificial intelligence (AI) to power tools, such as speech recognition and translation, to filter through thousands of hours of intercepts. The deal, signed earlier this year, is estimated to be worth up to £1bn over a decade.
Details have been kept under wraps and there are no plans to make them public. Amazon declined to comment. A GCHQ spokesman said it did not comment on claims about its relationships with technology suppliers.
Security experts say a tie-up with a Big Tech giant could help GCHQ sift more efficiently through the petabytes of information it gathers from wiretaps and surveillance.
Prof Alan Woodward, a cyber security expert at the University of Surrey and a former GCHQ consultant, says: “People like Amazon have the technology to keep this data live and online, so rather than taking days to request a recording from a backup system it can be done in a matter of hours.
“Actionable intelligence has to be timely, so this kind of deal makes sense.”
Amazon Web Services’ dominance
All data is planned to be held in Britain and Amazon will not have access to it. Still, a decision by GCHQ, the nation’s signals agency, to place a huge amount of the UK’s most secretive information into the hands of a foreign firm, albeit from a US ally, will no doubt spark concern over security and sovereignty.
France is working on a sovereign internet cloud system to handle public data, while the European Union has a similar project called Gaia-X. The aim is to build big data systems independent of US technology firms.
The agreement has also raised eyebrows from some British technology providers.
Simon Hansford, chief executive of UKCloud, says: “We await the details … but we fear that the deal represents another lurch away from supporting the UK’s own cloud industry.
"Granting this contract to a foreign entity represents a missed opportunity to foster a national capability, and the UK desperately needs the security, job creation, and strategic importance of a sovereign cloud able to host our nation’s most sensitive data.
“With over 100 countries developing frameworks for data sovereignty, the UK’s decision to swim against the current carries growing risks.”
Relations between Big Tech and Britain’s security services are not universally cosy. Leaks by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed just how much agencies, including the CIA and GCHQ, were monitoring vast swathes of the web, tapping fibre optic cables and snooping on Google and Facebook users without their knowledge.
Credit: Barton Gellman/Getty Images
Their ways of working aren’t always complementary. Tech companies have added encryption to scramble instant messages or documents stored by ordinary internet users. Spy agencies have repeatedly warned, however, that these tools mean they miss key leads on crime or terror.
Despite such clashes, Big Tech firms, in particular Amazon and increasingly Microsoft, have chased government, defence and intelligence contracts.
In 2013, the CIA agreed to a $600m deal with Amazon, giving it access to the Seattle-based company’s on-demand computing power.
Google, meanwhile, supplied AI technology to the Pentagon in an initiative known as Project Maven which began in 2017. Software, aimed at sifting through information gathered by surveillance drones for military analysts, was designed to support “counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations” that could one day end up on the battlefield.
The project was scrapped in 2018 after a walkout by Google staff. In an open letter to chief executive Sundar Pichai, its employees expressed concern that the military could weaponise AI and apply the tech to military projects and attacks. “We believe that Google should not be in the business of war”, they wrote, arguing its involvement could damage the brand and its public trust.
Credit: AP Photo/LM Otero, File
Last year, Amazon and Microsoft engaged in a public feud over a $10bn infrastructure project for the US Department of Defence, called JEDI. Amazon lost and sued the Pentagon, alleging the process had not been fair, partly due to US President Donald Trump’s personal dislike of Jeff Bezos. The contract was ultimately scrapped in July.
In the UK, Amazon’s Web Services division has increasingly snapped up Government contracts, last year securing tens of millions of pounds worth, although a GCHQ win is the first of its kind.
In February this year, members of the House of Lords questioned just how much digital transformation work in the UK was going to “one vendor in particular”.
But, in a sign of ever closer ties, the Ministry of Defence’s chief information officer Chris Forte last week sang the praises of Amazon in a LinkedIn post after a visit to its North American headquarters.
Of Amazon’s latest deal, the FT reported spooks sounded out the idea of picking a UK provider. None was found to offer the scale needed.
Industry executives say the UK’s intelligence agencies will have had few options other than to rely on Amazon to fulfil their data needs in the short term.
“Amazon has data centres in the UK, there are really no concerns over data sovereignty,” says David Richards, chief executive of UK cloud computing company Wandisco.
“There is also no other choice. Machine learning needs a lot of computer power, and this does not exist anywhere except on the cloud. If they don’t do it they will find themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.”