AWS wins deal to store UK spy agencies' work, brings AI to the table

The UK's spy agencies will move top secret data to AWS data centers and gain access to its artificial intelligence tools.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Intelligence agency GCHQ has signed a deal with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host classified material and boost the use of artificial intelligence for espionage purposes. 

Although the procurement of cloud infrastructure from AWS was signed off by GCHQ, it will also be used by sister spy services MI5 and MI6, and the Ministry of Defence during joint operations, according to the Financial Times

The deal had not been made public and was signed earlier this year, according to the report. It is worth £500m to £1bn over the next decade, FT sources said. 

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In a February opinion piece for the Financial Times, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said that the agencies "expect AI to be at the heart of this transformation and we want to be transparent about its use."

So-called "good AI" would allow "analysts to deal with ever increasing volumes and complexity of data, improving the quality and speed of decision-making."

This could include identifying and countering troll farms peddling fake news, as well as tracking networks that traffic people, drugs or weapons, Fleming noted.

AWS has a range of AI-powered tools, including its controversial Rekognition image video analysis platform, speech-to-text/text-to speech, translation and text analysis, and a secret region purpose-built for the US intelligence community. The CIA in November awarded its C2E contract to a panel of providers including Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, as FedScoop reported at the time. That contract was previously awarded solely to AWS in 2013. 

AWS will host GCHQ's and its sister agencies' top-secret information. Spooks should find it easier to share information from field locations overseas and use AWS tools like speech recognition and machine translation for faster processing of intercepted recordings. It will also gives spies the tools to run faster searches on each others' databases.

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Ciaran Martin, the former head of the GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre, said the deal with AWS was "not about collecting or hoarding more data," but was to "use existing large amounts of data more effectively".

Selecting a US cloud provider raises some questions about the UK's digital sovereignty. FT sources said GCHQ initially sought a UK provider but couldn't find a domestic player with the required scale or capabilities. 

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