By Alexis Long

28 Feb 2020

The UK government should look west for ideas on fostering security innovation from the tech sector, says Alexis Long


As someone who has been lucky enough to work in counter-terrorism for the British government, the US government, and for the private sector, I’ve had a ringside seat on numerous ways of working in the shared fight to protect citizens from harm.

During 2018 and 2019, I worked as chief innovation officer in the US Department of Homeland Security. As a newcomer to Washington DC, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale and size of the DHS machinery, and by the sense of patriotism and commitment of the men and women who serve it.

Steering and transforming an organisation of that size and complexity in a changing world – and against the backdrop of a broadening threat – comes with its own unique set of challenges. One such challenge at the forefront of senior administration officials’ minds is how the department can put new capabilities into the hands of its police and security agencies as quickly as possible.


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There is, of course, much that the US administration and federal government could learn from the UK about counter-terrorism. Here, however, I want to focus on what lessons America might have for us, particularly when it comes to stimulating the supply – and accelerating the adoption of – innovative technologies in the fight against terror.

Technology

Technology plays a huge role in this quest for better security faster, and the US has a great track record in finding creative ways to connect technology innovators to Washington DC’s national security community. In the late 90s, the US intelligence community founded In-Q-Tel, a private not-for-profit corporation aimed at identifying and then investing in cutting-edge technologies to help make the country safer.

In-Q-Tel is now the strategic investor for the US intelligence, security and defence communities. It expertly positions itself at the intersection of national security, private-sector venture capital and start-ups. From this vantage point, it leverages private equity and steers promising start-ups to focus technology solutions on national-security challenges. It does this very well while also relieving some of the burden of national security research and development from government.

For every $1 invested by US government customers in In-Q-Tel backed technologies, $16 is raised by private venture sources. That is a fantastic ratio and the scheme has directly led to new technologies being privately funded, developed, refined, trialled and transitioned to permanent operational capabilities at DHS at a pace never seen before.

Initiatives like this, and DHS’s own Silicon Valley Innovation Program, are now the cornerstone of the department’s technology efforts.

Here in the UK, it is encouraging to see the British Business Bank and the National Security Strategic Investment Fund starting to run similar schemes in a way that is suitable for the UK market and HM Government’s national security mission.

However, the technology itself is only half the solution. Initiatives like The National Strategic Security Investment Fund are an essential component in bringing innovation into government, but they are not the only reason why we in the UK do not see the level of private investment or indeed excitement in the market that we would expect. Unless the UK addresses the real issues, we may struggle to replicate the successes achieved by In-Q-Tel.

“Using government policymaking as a tool to excite and attract the private sector to help solve national security challenges is part of everyday life at the Department of Homeland Security”

Market stimulation and decision making

One of the main areas where the UK has some catching up to do is in better understanding and addressing head-on the underlying reasons behind the low levels of interest from the technology sector and venture-capital world.

A lot of this centres on making national security an attractive market to sell into.

The US Transportation Security Administration, which is an agency of the DHS, last year took active steps to attract new entrants to the market through a series of key policy and procedural decisions, designed to widen and excite technology manufacturers and venture funds who may never have historically thought or been able to do business with TSA. In other words, they used their policymaking powers as a tool to stimulate markets.

One example of this is the forthcoming rollout of CT Security Scanners for aviation cabin baggage screening. These scanners, armed with state-of-the-art detection algorithms, pave the way for the end of the liquid ban and the frustrating requirement for passengers to remove laptops from their bags as they pass through security.

Traditionally, however, global software giants have been boxed out of this market through the absence of any decision by security agencies to require manufacturers to decouple their hardware and software. Top software companies had no market to sell into.

Fast forward to today and new policy requirements made by the TSA for “open architecture” scanners that allow third party algorithms to be uploaded have opened up and stimulated the market to new entrants that could never have done business with TSA before.

The ethos of using government policymaking as a tool to excite and attract the private sector to help solve national security challenges is now part of everyday life at DHS and is embedded into their decision-making frameworks.

At the same time, DHS is constantly learning from its Silicon Valley partners on how to be a better customer, creating a culture that incentivises accelerated decision-making and early adoption of new technologies. From not letting perfection be the enemy of progress, to understanding and addressing the adverse impact that delayed decisions have on the market, much is being done to ensure that DHS is an attractive customer to do business with.

There is an exciting opportunity for us to do the same in the UK. From “Silicon Roundabout” in London to “Silicon Fen” in Cambridge, getting out and listening to our future partners on how to be a better customer should be a key component of our innovation strategy.

One way we can start is by addressing our procurement processes. Small and start-up businesses need be given an even playing field. Traditional procurement measures of company health such as company size, turnover or contracts are no longer valid. We need new ways to contract with promising young businesses and at a pace which isn’t to the detriment of vulnerable new start-ups. 

It is softer, non-technological initiatives like these that are truly revolutionising innovation in the US and finally opening up Washington DC to Silicon Valley.

The are many areas where the UK leads the world and where our American friends can learn from us, but in terms of unleashing the power of technology to help protect the UK, our government could do a lot worse than follow the lead of our colleagues across the pond.

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