Ripjar, a startup founded by former employees from Britain’s intelligence agency, has received £28m to build artificial intelligence that detects financial crime.

Founded in 2013, Ripjar has developed ‘Labyrinth’ — an AI platform that sifts through data and checks the information against sanctions lists, politically exposed persons lists and transaction alerts, aiming to detect financial crime. 

The information gathered by Labyrinth is then assessed by human analysts, who use it to try and combat money laundering, fraud and the financing of terrorism. 

Advertisement

Chief executive Jeremy Annis, former data scientist for GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence service, said the startup’s aim is to “protect companies and governments from criminal behaviour which threatens their assets and prosperity.”

Ripjar isn’t the first company to be founded by former intelligence workers. Darktrace, a British AI company specialising in cyber defense, was founded in 2013 through a collaboration between Cambridge University and British intelligence agencies. 

Darktrace’s ‘Enterprise Immune System’ is a platform that uses AI to build a pattern of a network, device or user, which allows agencies to have an understanding of ‘normal activity,’ and therefore flag when that activity turns abnormal. 

The technology has been deployed more than 9,000 times and the company has 44 offices around the world. It was valued at $1.6bn in 2018.

Is Britain’s GCHQ becoming a startup incubator?

Ripjar’s five founders all came from GCHQ. Annis explains that they felt there was an opportunity to take some of their learnings from the agency and use them to help other companies and governments too.

Organisations like GCHQ and MI6 are pushed to innovate and overcome challenges that almost no one else is working on,” says David Balson, Ripjar’s director of intelligence.

“Coupled with the explosion of data over the last 20 years, this combination of a mission with an extremely sharp focus and innovative ways of overcoming obstacles, explains why you see a lot of talent and innovative technologies emerging from intelligence agencies which can be applied in the private sector.”

The links between business and intelligence aren’t a new phenomenon, Balson adds. When Alan Turing designed the method to break the Enigma code during WW2, he turned to private businesses to help build the machine, and the CIA built spy planes during the Cold War in partnership with private firms. 

Unit 8200

That’s a precedent for intelligence agencies to feed into the private tech sector elsewhere in the world, too. Unit 8200, for example, is an intelligence corps within Israel’s Defense Force and many of its graduates have gone onto jobs in Silicon Valley. 

The authors of ‘Startup Nation’, a 2009 book about Israel’s startup culture, described Unit 8200 as “the nation’s equivalent of Harvard or Yale.” 

For example, Gil Shewd, cofounder of Check Point, Israel’s largest cybersecurity company, was in Unit 8200, as was Israel’s Avi Hasson, former chief scientist of Israel, whose office was in charge of dispensing loans to tech startups. 

For Ripjar’s Balson, it’s been the shift in public and private data ownership over recent decades that means more private sector companies are working on cybersecurity.

Telecoms companies are now in a better position to protect users from cyberattacks, he says, and banks are more equipped to detect money laundering and the financing of terrorism — and they all need the equipment to do so. 

“It is essential more than ever,” Balson says, “that these institutions have access to the right technology that can help them and wider society solve these problems.”

Freya Pratty covers news at Sifted. She has previously interned at Bloomberg and tweets from @FPratty