Hidden elements of the cloud of invisibility

It’s a Saturday in July and the outside world is like a benign simulated environment. Your camera cover and recorder are attached with Velcro, and the memory card is micro. Inside, it’s more natural. Your camera and recorder are almost filled with light, after two days during which there have been five sunrises and four sunsets. But inside, it is even more artificial.

Much of your high-resolution film is stored in your laptop which is plugged into the wall. Nothing is shared because its encrypted. When you click on any picture to open, it takes you to the broadband connection. Inside the mesh of protected cables are many servers, each containing an ‘address’, not an alphanumeric protocol, but a brand-name Internet address.

Everything is set up according to an industry standard (called Network Access Control) and its customer, Sarge Networks, occupies 40,000 sq metres of free-standing building. It produces, among other things, PC monitoring software.

‘We keep an eye on everything,’ says Jerry Collier, managing director. ‘We offer infection detection and protection. If anything in the network is compromised, they can put it back up and use it. We keep the Internet free of viruses, worms and spyware.’

Welcome to the world of hidden devices and anonymous links. Sarge Networks might be a simple Southport offshoot of American government IT, but behind the facade sits a ground-breaking internet protocol security system. Each computer on the network has a code, or ‘key’, which works something like a credit card – the subject cannot be counterfeited.

That’s for everyday users, of course. It’s high-level surveillance for people running corporate IT systems.

‘We protect the Internet against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, phishing scams and other forms of malicious traffic,’ explains Jerry Collier.

‘We make sure there are no rogue machines – that are off-purpose. We deal with other products such as antivirus scanners and firewalls.’

Sarge Networks is a bigger business than most people realise. Founded in the early 1990s, it has an annual turnover of nearly £60m and partners with 56 countries around the world. It supplies its encryption code to 3,500 companies worldwide – none of which use it now, he points out.

If a piece of Sarge software is installed inside a computer at a company, then hackers can’t simply get back inside by hacking into the internet. As the corporate clients are so well protected, the Sarge code is identical to that in the company’s architecture. From a relatively simple communications protocol, it has spread to a premium feature in the internet in every corporate network.

Today’s challenges are low-level attacks, the stuff of gamers and Mr Bean. The key is low-level encryption – highly sophisticated, but effective. Anything requiring access to proprietary data is refused. A tiny, low-level attack can rapidly become a massive, critical, business-crippling raid.

‘There are bugs in the standard encryption protocols, but we have pioneered a solution,’ says Collier. ‘Its effectiveness means that it can be far less invasive than any other system.’

Sarge Networks ‘kitchen cabinet’ is packed with sophisticated security technologies. It relies on smart reception software, which shines a light in the target network, then scrambles the data it takes. Even if all data changes it can provide details of who a hacker is and not have the exposure of 50 URLs or any other form of identity-distorting leakage.

Colin Dyke is a security reporter for Reuters.

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