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GCHQ could be turned into a technology incubator under plans being discussed by the government, it's been revealed.

The security minister Baroness Neville-Jones told MPs that commercialisation of the Cheltenham spy agency's technology and services is a "live issue".

She appeared yesterday before the Science and Technology Select Committee to answer questions on the government's approach to national emergencies, including cyber attacks.

"You are taking me on to ground, chairman, that we are thinking about," she told the Committee.

"There are many ways of tackling the whole question of whether, for instance, Cheltenham were to supply a service to the private sector how that might be funded and what the financial relationship might be," Neville-Jones said, adding that she was uncomfortable disclosing the details of ongoing discussions.

The comments came in response to Committee's Labour chairman Andrew Miller, who cited GCHQ scientists' invention of public key cryptography in 1973 as a missed commercial opportunity. The innovation was kept secret, and civilian American scientists subsequently independently developed and similar algorithms, which formed the basis of major corporations.

"If RSL [sic - he meant RSA] had been created in the UK you'd have a bit more money to spend," he said.

GCHQ already acts as a services provider to the rest of government. Its information assurance arm, CESG, charges departments for security consultancy including penetration testing.

Offering CESG's services for a fee to selected private firms would be a relatively small policy change. Commercialising GCHQ's jealously guarded technical innovations - its modern equivalents of public key cryptography - would require a more radical shift. ®

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