Penten leverages Australia’s engineering talent to secure government networks

Canberra cyber security company invests in local talent to build new technologies

matthew wilson penten
Penten

Canberra-based cyber security company Penten has achieved 100 per cent revenue growth for the last two years by not ignoring the "amazing" set of engineering talents that exists in Australia, according to its chief executive.

"There's no reason why we can't be looking to apply that engineering talent to the creation of a lot of products... and technologies for a global market," CEO Matthew Wilson told Computerworld.

"There's a fairly even distribution of smart people throughout the world. There's no reason why world-leading technologies and capabilities can't be built out of Australia, and the success of Penten is a testament to the fact that that is true," he added.

Penten was established in 2014. The co-founders of the company, which combined have more than 20 years of experience in IT security, had tired of the approach of waiting for technologies to be created and matured in other markets.

In the half-decade it has been operating, Penten has evolved from a company designing custom security solutions for customers to one focused on supporting defence and government. The approach has seen it grow from four to 75 staff, all based in Canberra.

Penten has a “very clear focus on creating capability in applying artificial intelligence” to protect networks, while also enabling mobility within those secure or government networks, Wilson said.

In 2017, the company launched the AltoCrypt Stik, a USB-based device designed to deliver wireless access to government networks for individuals dealing with data subject to stringent security controls.

Wilson said that the Stik was created as a reaction to existing capabilities, which required brief-case-sized devices and whose technology evolved once a decade. The creation of the Stik was also about enabling a new way of behaving and operating with an easy-to-carry, mobile solution.

"When the previous generation of capabilities were built we didn't really have the prevalence of, not just mobile phones, but the app world," he explained.

"The nature of our lives is so connected now to our devices and the way that we bank, the way that we work, the way that we interact with our friends and family and our loved ones. Not recognising that in the context of the way that defence and government operates was missing a couple of really interesting opportunities.

"So the Stik was about trying to create a much more accessible and flexible wireless environment for laptops and Windows-based tablets."

Penten's highest profile Australian customer is the Department of Defence. Penten in July won a $2.2 million deal to improve the Australian Army’s cyber capabilities.

Even as a preferred vendor, Penten still has to go through approvals to meet the government's security standards and be able to operate within and on specific protected networks.

New solutions and the future of the business

Recently, Penten unveiled another solution, the AltoCrypt Phone. The offering is based on an iPhone handset with an A12 or A13+ chipset and running iOS 12 or 13+. Penten says it runs a “secure software module that protects data in transit using high assurance encryption protocols”.

“This software has been designed to directly connect to existing access gateways and crypto infrastructure standards, which are in service throughout the Australian government,” Penten says.

The AltoCrypt Phone offers a suite of secure apps covering chat, voice and video, email and calendar.

"The phone is just about trying to support a more modern communication environment that still respects the kind of doctrine and regulation that sits around operating within the defence space," Wilson said.

The use of the iPhones was made easier as the devices using iOS 12, including iPod Touch and iPad, are certified by the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) for use with data classified at the PROTECTED level. The certification was accepted in 2016.

The ASD recently accepted the certification of Samsung's Galaxy S9 and S9+ for use with PROTECTED data. Wilson didn’t rule out ever expanding the company’s secure software to an Android handset but said Penten did not currently have any plans to do so. Building the iPhone capability took the company three years, he said.

Although the company is based in Australia, “thousands” of Penten’s devices are already in use by the UK government. Wilson said that adoption in Australia is not quite at the same scale as the UK but it is growing at a reasonable pace.

The company has a co-development partnership with UK-based Amiosec.

Penten has presence in Canada and New Zealand and is eyeing potential opportunities in other regions.

The company plans to continue its current model of partnering with companies that have an existing presence in the market rather than establishing its own physical presence.

"The focus is on engaging with organisations that have increasing focus in customer relationships and existing knowledge about the market they work in to enable them with the technology that will meet their customers' demand," Wilson said.

Wilson said that Penten is committed to the government and defence space.

"When you understand one particular vertical, the transition to the next vertical is not something that you do lightly, although one of the things that's quite clear is some of the building blocks that we've built have applicability within the enterprise space,” the CEO said.

"We're exploring some of those opportunities, but at this point, we're not oriented around those opportunities; our primary orientation is always around supporting the government space, because it's something that we understand."

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