January 27, 2017
The next time a hacker tries to break into a British bank, chances are that technology from a small Indian startup will detect the hack. Earlier this month, Britain’s top communications spy agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), which had cracked Nazi Germany’s legendary Enigma codes during the Second World War, chose Pune-based cyber security startup Spherical Defence for their accelerator programme.
Spherical Defence is the brainchild of two 23-year-olds, Dishant Shah and Jack Hopkins, who met in September 2016 at an entrepreneurship summit in London while pursuing their masters’ programmes from University College London and Cambridge, respectively.
The five-member startup uses ‘deep learning’ — a type of artificial intelligence modelled after brain’s neural networks — to create patterns of normal communication. Hack attempts show up as deviations from these patterns. “The selection in the programme immediately gives Spherical Defence credibility on the global stage and increases its ability to secure new corporate partners and customers,” said Shah.
The cyber security firm has built a Banking Intrusion Detection System and counts the likes of Paytm, OYO Rooms, ICICI Bank and HSBC as customers. “We are in talks with global banks such as Barclays, Santander and HSBC,” said Shah, adding that the startup is self-funded even though it has received funding offers before.
For now, the two founders have moved base to Cheltenham, England, where they are housed right next to ‘The Doughnut’, as the GCHQ headquarters is called because of its oval-shaped building.
Along with seven other companies chosen worldwide, Spherical Defence will go through a three-month development programme during which it will be provided office space, mentoring, training and exposure to investor network.
“Now that we are listed as suppliers to GCHQ, approaching banks and pitching ideas is much easier. We got introduced to defence contractor BAE Systems,” said Shah, who adds that working with the spy agency has been an interesting experience.
“Cheltenham, like US’ National Security Agency, is very secretive. They send their top staff to work with us in a separate office classified ‘normal’,” said Shah. “Meetings with top officials are so secretive that they don’t even disclose their last names while introducing themselves. We can meet and interact with them, but they do not share their email IDs and phone numbers,” he added.
In November 2016, the UK government announced that it would spend £1.9 billion on cyber security as attacks have increased in the past few years. For instance, in October last year, a 16-year-old hacker launched a cyberattack on UK’s largest telecom operator TalkTalk, which exposed 1.2 million email IDs, names, phone numbers and 21,000 bank account numbers. The cyber security accelerator in Cheltenham is an attempt to tap into the best brains and technology in the cyber security space. It’s a tie-up between GCHQ and Wayra UK, a corporate accelerator. Gary Stewart, director of Wayra UK, who was a part of the judging panel, says he was “wowed” by Shah’s pitch as soon as he heard it. “I am convinced that Spherical Defence will be one of the stars of our GCHQ cyber accelerator programme,” said Stewart.