x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Looking to strike gold over corporate privacy

While the US pursues Edward Snowden after the ex-CIA man's revelations, Dubai entrepreneur Harvey Boulter reckons to have struck gold with a high-tech antidote to prying governments.

The demand for Harvey Boulter's Seecrypt app shows that individuals and corporates are keen to protect their privacy. Antonie Robertson / The National
The demand for Harvey Boulter's Seecrypt app shows that individuals and corporates are keen to protect their privacy. Antonie Robertson / The National

Many businessmen shy away from political controversy, but not Harvey Boulter.

The Dubai-based entrepreneur appears to thrive on the cut-and-thrust of policymakers' predicaments, and sees business opportunities in others' problems.

A couple of years ago, Mr Boulter intervened decisively in a British political scandal, ultimately helping to bring about the resignation of a British government minister (more of which later).

Now he is trying to cash in on the biggest issue in global affairs: the controversial question of state surveillance of telecommunications sparked by the revelations of a former employee of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Edward Snowden.

"There has got to be a balance between surveillance and privacy. It's not just about private individuals in the USA having their phone calls or emails intercepted, it's about big global corporations having their security compromised. If you cannot offer telecoms security to the likes of Lockheed Martin [the giant US defence contractor], what hope is there for citizens' privacy?"

As Mr Snowden was boarding a plane to escape US extradition from Hong Kong, Mr Boulter was speaking in the clubby environs of The Address hotel at the Montgomerie golf course in Dubai.

He is within sight of the multimillion-dollar villa he has built out of the profits from two decades of work in the private-equity sector, specialising in the civilian application of military technology.

This time he thinks he, and his Cayman Islands company, Porton Group, have struck gold. Mr Boulter believes he has found a technological antidote to prying governments and compliant media companies, such as Google and Facebook, which apparently went along with official requests for private information.

Seecrypt, Mr Boulter explains, is an app that can be downloaded to ensure 100 per cent encryption of voice calls from smartphones. Seecrypt , he says, is a military encryption technology used by governments and security services around the world. He claims it is impossible for all but the most advanced government agencies to break the Seecrypt coding system.

Since Mr Snowden's revelations first hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago, there has been flurry of interest, he says, in the potential of Seecrypt as an anti-snooping app.

Mr Boulter is aware that his product might attract the unwelcome attention of official bodies keen to enhance their surveillance capabilities. "Not all parts of government will like it, but some very important ones will, as well as private corporations and citizens," he says, claiming a European royal family, a host of Hollywood celebrities as well as defence contractors and law firms are on Seecrypt's client list.

There are also plans to extend Seecrypt beyond voice calls, into email and video connections.

Isn't he worried governments might take action against Seecrypt and its surveillance-escaping abilities? He explains that the ownership structure would make it difficult for any single state to put the squeeze on.

"We're a South African-registered entity controlled by investors, technology partners, management and myself. But the ultimate holding company is a Cayman Islands vehicle," he says.

While Seecrypt is currently taking up most of Mr Boulter's time, there is a date looming in December in London's High Court that will also spark headlines around the world.

He is being sued for libel by Liam Fox, the former British defence minister whose resignation in 2011 was due in part to revelations that the Conservative minister allegedly had improper meetings with businessmen and advisers in Dubai and other places, revelations fuelled by Mr Boulter. He declines to talk in detail about the case, but appears determined to resist the allegations.

Mr Boulter has a long relationship with the British defence establishment. Many of the investments Porton Group has promoted over the years have been spun out of military technology, from battlefield diagnostics to anti-chemical warfare treatments.

Porton investors include some important figures in the Arabian Gulf financial community. Mr Boulter concedes that conditions in the private equity business have not been easy.

"The underlying economic conditions have been tough. Some things have gone well and others not," he says.

But he denies there is any massive discontent among investors. "Some investors are genuinely surprised things didn't work out, the concept of risk and return is difficult for them. But I have never had a single investor take action against Porton in our history."

 

fkane@thenational.ae