MI5, MI6, and GCHQ have agreed to, what is estimated to be, a £500 million to £1 billion agreement with Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing services to store highly sensitive and classified data.
The move made last Monday by UK Central Intelligence has been said to bolster the security efforts of MI5, MI6, and the GCHQ by using data analytics and artificial intelligence for espionage, as understood by the Financial Times. It is believed that there will be an ever-increasing need for expansive online storage regarding data, such as cellular telephone traffic and electronic communications as the British intelligence agencies move forward.
The benefits of the multimillion-pound deal are monumental, as integrated web services allow instantaneous sharing of top-secret information to intelligence officers within different locations overseas. As stated by Ciaran Martin, former head of UK’s Cyber Security Centre, the improvement would allow large storages of data to be gathered “in minutes, rather than in weeks or months”. Furthermore, specialist applications such as speech recognition could be used in the cloud to access, translate and possibly identify intercepted communications.
However, the deal highlights that the UK faces a shortfall regarding digital infrastructure as GCHQ sought a suitable UK provider for this cloud service but were simply unable to do so due to the sheer scale and capability requirements of cloud computing. As of August 2019, A research analytics company, Gartner, found that the UK was trailing behind the US in terms of spending on cloud services by 5.3 percentage points.
Additionally, the CIA has been utilising the cloud since 2013, indicating their progress in improving surveillance and analysing potential threats to national security. In July 2020, the UK had accelerated cloud adoption by introducing government-backed agreements towards the public sector by signing a memorandum with IBM.
Analysts have questioned the decision to use US-based cloud computing services, as US companies will retain UK secret intelligence, raising issues regarding the nation’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, the data stored within the cloud will remain within the UK as AWS, like for each service it provides, do not have access to the content within the cloud according to those with knowledge of the deal.
Sources say the Labour party questioned the risk assessment before the three security services signed the deal. It is clear that contingencies must be made if Amazon’s systems were to go down or experience a breach in security. However, it remains unlikely that malicious activity would occur due to the close political ties between the US and the UK.