The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is an intelligence and security organisation responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the government and armed forces of the United Kingdom. Based in “The Doughnut” in the suburbs of Cheltenham, GCHQ is the responsibility of the country’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, but it is not a part of the Foreign Office and its director ranks as a Permanent Secretary.
GCHQ was originally established after the First World War as the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) and was known under that name until 1946. During the Second World War it was located at Bletchley Park, where it was responsible for breaking of the German Enigma codes. There are two main components of the GCHQ, the Composite Signals Organisation (CSO), which is responsible for gathering information, and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is responsible for securing the UK’s own communications. The Joint Technical Language Service (JTLS) is a small department and cross-government resource responsible for mainly technical language support and translation and interpreting services across government departments. It is co-located with GCHQ for administrative purposes.
In 2013, GCHQ received considerable media attention when the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency was in the process of collecting all online and telephone data in the UK via the Tempora programme. Snowden’s revelations began a spate of ongoing disclosures of global surveillance. The Guardian newspaper was then forced to destroy all incriminating files given to them by Snowden because of the threats of lawsuits from the UK Government.
- Sigint missions: comprising maths and cryptanalysis, IT and computer systems, linguistics and translation, and the intelligence analysis unit
- Enterprise: comprising applied research and emerging technologies, corporate knowledge and information systems, commercial supplier relationships, and biometrics
- Corporate management: enterprise resource planning, human resources, internal audit, and architecture
- Communications-Electronics Security Group
According to Edward Snowden, GCHQ has two principal umbrella programs for collecting communications:
- “Mastering the Internet” (MTI) for Internet traffic, which is extracted from fibre-optic cables and can be searched by using the Tempora computer system.
- “Global Telecoms Exploitation” (GTE) for telephone traffic.
GCHQ also has had access to the US internet monitoring programme PRISM since at least June 2010. PRISM is said to give the National Security Agency and FBI easy access to the systems of nine of the world’s top internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and Skype.
In February 2014, The Guardian, based on documents provided by Snowden, revealed that GCHQ had indiscriminately collected 1.8 million private Yahoo webcam images from users across the world. In the same month NBC and The Intercept, based on documents released by Snowden, revealed the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group and the CNE units within GCHQ. Their mission was cyber operations based on “dirty tricks” to shut down enemy communications, discredit, and plant misinformation on enemies. These operations were 5% of all GCHQ operations according to a conference slideshow presented by the GCHQ.
Soon after becoming Director of GCHQ in 2014, Robert Hannigan wrote an article in the Financial Times on the topic of internet surveillance, stating that “however much [large US technology companies] may dislike it, they have become the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” and that GCHQ and its sister agencies “cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the private sector”, arguing that most internet users “would be comfortable with a better and more sustainable relationship between the [intelligence] agencies and the tech companies”. Since the 2013 global surveillance disclosures, large US technology companies have improved security and become less co-operative with foreign intelligence agencies, including those of the UK, generally requiring a US court order before disclosing data. However the head of the UK technology industry group techUK rejected these claims, stating that they understood the issues but that disclosure obligations “must be based upon a clear and transparent legal framework and effective oversight rather than, as suggested, a deal between the industry and government”.
In 2015, documents obtained by The Intercept from US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had carried out a mass-surveillance operation, codenamed KARMA POLICE, since about 2008. The KARMA POLICE operation swept up the IP address of Internet users visiting websites. The program was established with no public scrutiny or oversight. KARMA POLICE is a powerful spying tool in conjunction with other GCHQ programs, because IP addresses could be cross-referenced with other data. The goal of the program, according to the documents, was “either (a) a web browsing profile for every visible user on the internet, or (b) a user profile for every visible website on the internet.”
In 2015, GCHQ admitted for the first time in court that it conducts computer hacking.
In 2017, US Press Secretary Sean Spicer alleged that GCHQ had conducted surveillance on US President Donald Trump, basing the allegation on statements made by a media commentator during a Fox News segment. The US government formally apologised for the allegations and promised they would not be repeated. However, surveillance of Russian agents did pick up contacts made by Trump’s campaign team in the run up to his election, which was passed on to US agencies. On 31 October 2018, GCHQ joined Instagram.
As well as a mission to gather intelligence, GCHQ has for a long-time had a corresponding mission to assist in the protection of the British government’s own communications. When the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was created in 1919, its overt task was providing security advice. GC&CS’s Security section was located in Mansfield College, Oxford during the Second World War.
From 1952 to 1954, the intelligence mission of GCHQ relocated to Cheltenham; the Security section remained at Eastcote, and in March 1954 became a separate, independent organisation: the London Communications Security Agency (LCSA), which in 1958 was renamed to the London Communications-Electronic Security Agency (LCESA).
In April 1965, GPO and MOD units merged with LCESA to become the Communications-Electronic Security Department (CESD).
In October 1969, CESD was merged into GCHQ and becoming Communications-Electronic Security Group (CESG).
In 1977 CESG relocated from Eastcote to Cheltenham.
CESG continued as the UK National Technical Authority for information assurance, including cryptography. CESG did not manufacture security equipment, but worked with industry to ensure the availability of suitable products and services, while GCHQ itself funded research into such areas, for example to the Centre for Quantum Computing at Oxford University and the Heilbronn Institute at the University of Bristol.
Public key encryption
In late 1969 the concept for public key encryption was developed and proven by James H. Ellis, who had worked for CESG (and before it, CESD) since 1965. Ellis lacked the necessary number theory expertise necessary to build a workable system. Subsequently, a feasible implementation scheme via an asymmetric key algorithm was invented by another staff member Clifford Cocks, a mathematics graduate. This fact was kept secret until 1997.
In 2016, the National Cyber Security Centre was established under GCHQ, but located in London, as the UK’s authority on cyber security. It absorbed and replaced CESG as well as activities that had previously existed outside GCHQ: the Centre for Cyber Assessment (CCA), Computer Emergency Response Team UK (CERT UK) and the cyber-related responsibilities of the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI).
Joint Technical Language Service
The Joint Technical Language Service (JTLS) was established in 1955, drawing on members of the small Ministry of Defence technical language team and others, initially to provide standard English translations for organisational expressions in any foreign language, discover the correct English equivalents of technical terms in foreign languages and discover the correct expansions of abbreviations in any language. The remit of the JTLS has expanded in the ensuing years to cover technical language support and interpreting and translation services across the UK Government and to local public sector services in Gloucestershire and surrounding counties. The JTLS also produces and publishes foreign language working aids under crown copyright and conducts research into machine translation and on-line dictionaries and glossaries. The JTLS is co-located with GCHQ for administrative purposes.
GCHQ operates in partnership with equivalent agencies worldwide in a number of bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships. The principal of these is with the United States (National Security Agency), Canada (Communications Security Establishment), Australia (Australian Signals Directorate) and New Zealand (Government Communications Security Bureau), through the mechanism of the UK-US Security Agreement, a broad intelligence-sharing agreement encompassing a range of intelligence collection methods. Relationships are alleged to include shared collection methods, such as the system described in the popular media as ECHELON, as well as analysed product.
GCHQ’s legal basis is enshrined in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 Section 3 as follows:
(1) There shall continue to be a Government Communications Headquarters under the authority of the Secretary of State; and, subject to subsection (2) below, its functions shall be—
- (a) to monitor or interfere with electromagnetic, acoustic and other emissions and any equipment producing such emissions and to obtain and provide information derived from or related to such emissions or equipment and from encrypted material; and
- (b) to provide advice and assistance about—
- (i) languages, including terminology used for technical matters, and
- (ii) cryptography and other matters relating to the protection of information and other material, to the armed forces of the Crown, to Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom or to a Northern Ireland Department or to any other organisation which is determined for the purposes of this section in such manner as may be specified by the Prime Minister.
(2) The functions referred to in subsection (1)(a) above shall be exercisable only—
- (a) in the interests of national security, with particular reference to the defence and foreign policies of Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom; or
- (b) in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in relation to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands; or
- (c) in support of the prevention or detection of serious crime.
(3) In this Act the expression “GCHQ” refers to the Government Communications Headquarters and to any unit or part of a unit of the armed forces of the Crown which is for the time being required by the Secretary of State to assist the Government Communications Headquarters in carrying out its functions.
Activities that involve interception of communications are permitted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; this kind of interception can only be carried out after a warrant has been issued by a Secretary of State. The Human Rights Act 1998 requires the intelligence agencies, including GCHQ, to respect citizens’ rights as described in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Prime Minister nominates cross-party Members of Parliament to an Intelligence and Security Committee. The remit of the Committee includes oversight of intelligence and security activities and reports are made directly to Parliament. Its functions were increased under the Justice and Security Act 2013 to provide for further access and investigatory powers.
Judicial oversight of GCHQ’s conduct is exercised by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The UK also has an independent Intelligence Services Commissioner and Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom are former senior judges.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in December 2014 that GCHQ does not breach the European Convention of Human Rights, and that its activities are compliant with Articles 8 (right to privacy) and 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention of Human Rights. However, the Tribunal stated in February 2015 that one particular aspect, the data-sharing arrangement that allowed UK Intelligence services to request data from the US surveillance programmes Prism and Upstream, had been in contravention of human rights law prior to this until two paragraphs of additional information, providing details about the procedures and safeguards, were disclosed to the public in December 2014.
Furthermore, the IPT ruled that the legislative framework in the United Kingdom does not permit mass surveillance and that while GCHQ collects and analyses data in bulk, it does not practice mass surveillance. This complements independent reports by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and a special report made by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament; although several shortcomings and potential improvements to both oversight and the legislative framework were highlighted.
Despite the inherent secrecy around much of GCHQ’s work, investigations carried out by the UK government after the Snowden disclosures have admitted various abuses by the security services. A report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2015 revealed that a small number of staff at UK intelligence agencies had been found to misuse their surveillance powers, in one case leading to the dismissal of a member of staff at GCHQ, although there were no laws in place at the time to make these abuses a criminal offence.
Later that year, a ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that GCHQ acted unlawfully in conducting surveillance on two human rights organisations. The closed hearing found the government in breach of its internal surveillance policies in accessing and retaining the communications of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa. This was only the second time in the IPT’s history that it had made a positive determination in favour of applicants after a closed session.
At another IPT case in 2015, GCHQ conceded that “from January 2010, the regime for the interception/obtaining, analysis, use, disclosure and destruction of legally privileged material has not been in accordance with the law for the purposes of Article 8(2) of the European convention on human rights and was accordingly unlawful”. This admission was made in connection with a case brought against them by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a Libyan opponent of the former Gaddafi regime, and his wife Fatima Bouchar. The couple accused British ministers and officials of participating in their unlawful abduction, kidnapping and removal to Libya in March 2004, while Gaddafi was still in power.
Surveillance of parliamentarians
In 2015 there was a complaint by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas that British intelligence services, including GCHQ, had been spying on MPs allegedly “in defiance of laws prohibiting it.” GCHQ had introduced a policy in March 2015 that did not require approval by the Prime Minister, or any minister, before deliberately targeting the communications of a parliamentarian.
|“||Obviously, the Wilson Doctrine applies to parliamentarians. It does not absolutely exclude the use of these powers against parliamentarians, but it sets certain requirements for those powers to be used in relation to a parliamentarian. It is not the case that parliamentarians are excluded and nobody else in the country is, but there is a certain set of rules and protocols that have to be met if there is a requirement to use any of these powers against a parliamentarian.||”|
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal investigated the complaint, and ruled that contrary to the allegation, there was no law that gave the communications of parliament any special protection. The Wilson Doctrine merely acts as a political convention.
Constitutional legal case
A controversial GCHQ case determined the scope of judicial review of prerogative powers (the Crown’s residual powers under common law). This was Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service  AC 374 (often known simply as the “GCHQ case”). In this case, a prerogative Order in Council had been used by the prime minister (who is the Minister for the Civil Service) to ban trade union activities by civil servants working at GCHQ. This order was issued without consultation. The House of Lords had to decide whether this was reviewable by judicial review. It was held that executive action is not immune from judicial review simply because it uses powers derived from common law rather than statute (thus the prerogative is reviewable).
The following is a list of the heads of the operational heads of GCHQ and GC&CS:
- Alastair Denniston CMG CBE (1921 – February 1942) (continued as Deputy Director (Diplomatic and Commercial) until 1945).
- Sir Edward Travis KCMG CBE (February 1942 – 1952)
- Sir Eric Jones KCMG CB CBE (April 1952 – 1960)
- Sir Clive Loehnis KCMG (1960–1964)
- Sir Leonard Hooper KCMG CBE (1965–1973)
- Sir Arthur Bonsall KCMG CBE (1973–1978)
- Sir Brian John Maynard Tovey KCMG (1978–1983)
- Sir Peter Marychurch KCMG (1983–1989)
- Sir John Anthony Adye KCMG (1989–1996)
- Sir David Omand GCB (1996 –1997)
- Sir Kevin Tebbit KCB CMG (1998)
- Sir Francis Richards KCMG CVO DL (1998–2003)
- Sir David Pepper KCMG (2003–2008)
- Sir Iain Lobban KCMG CB (2008–2014)
- Robert Hannigan CMG (2014–2017)
- Jeremy Fleming (2017–present)
Stations and former stations
The following are stations and former stations that have operated since the Cold War.
- GCHQ Cheltenham
- GCHQ Ascension Island
- GCHQ Bude, Cornwall
- GCHQ Cyprus
- GCHQ Scarborough, North Yorkshire
- Joint Service Signal Unit (Digby), Lincolnshire
- GCHQ Manchester
- GCHQ London
- GCHQ Brora, Sutherland
- GCHQ Cheadle, Staffordshire
- GCHQ Culmhead, Somerset
- GCHQ Hawklaw, Fife
- GCHQ Hong Kong
GCHQ Certified Training
The GCHQ Certified Training (GCT) scheme was established to certify two main levels of cyber security training. There are also degree and masters level courses. These are:
- Awareness Level Training: giving an understanding and a foundation in cyber security concepts; and
- Application Level Training: a more in-depth course
The GCT scheme was designed to help organisations find the right training that also met GCHQ’s exacting standards. It was designed to assure high quality cyber security training courses where the training provider had also undergone rigorous quality checks. The GCT process is carried out by APMG as the independent certification body. The scheme is part of the National Cyber Security Programme established by the Government to develop knowledge, skills and capability in all aspects of cyber security in the, and is based on the IISP Skills Framework.
In popular culture
The historical drama film The Imitation Game (2014) featured Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Alan Turing‘s efforts to break the Enigma code while employed by the Government Code and Cypher School.
GCHQ have set a number of cryptic online challenges to the public, used to attract interest and for recruitment, starting in late 1999. The response to the 2004 challenge was described as “excellent”, and the challenge set in 2015 had over 600,000 attempts. It also published the GCHQ puzzle book in 2016 which sold more than 300,000 copies, with the proceeds going to charity. A second book was published in October 2018.
- Capenhurst – said to be home to a GCHQ monitoring site in the 1990s
- Hugh Alexander – head of the cryptanalysis division at GCHQ from 1949 to 1971
- Operation Socialist, a 2010–13 operation in Belgium
- Zircon, the 1980s cancelled GCHQ satellite project
- British intelligence agencies
- Joint Forces Intelligence Group
- RAF Intelligence
- UK cyber security community
- Signals intelligence by alliances, nations and industries
- NSA – equivalent United States organization
Notes and references
- Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament “Annual Report 2016–2017”, page 84. House of Commons (20 December 2017). Retrieved 1 June 2018.
- House of Commons (5 July 2016). Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Annual Report 2015–2016, page 10. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
- GCHQ – Welcome to GCHQ, Government of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
- “A simple guide to GCHQ’s internet surveillance programme Tempora”. Wired UK. 24 June 2013.
- Borger, Julian (21 August 2013). “NSA files: why the Guardian in London destroyed hard drives of leaked files”. The Guardian. Retrieved 27 May2018.
- “MI5 veteran Jeremy Fleming named as new GCHQ head”. Sky News. Retrieved 21 March 2017.
- Aldrich, 2010, p. 565
- (secondary) Leong, Angela (2007). The Disruption of International Organised Crime: An Analysis of Legal and Non-Legal Strategies. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-7066-7. Retrieved 19 April 2012.
- Gannon, Paul (2011). Inside Room 40: The Codebreakers of World War I. Ian Allan Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7110-3408-2.
- Johnson, 1997, p. 27
- Johnson, 1997, p. 44
- Johnson, 1997, p. 45 and Kahn, 1991, p. 82; these sources give different numbers for the initial size of the GC&CS staff
- Macksey, Kenneth (2003). The Searchers: How Radio Interception Changed the Course of Both World Wars. Cassell Military. p. 58. ISBN 0-304-36545-9.
- Smith, 2001, pp. 16–17
- Kahn, 1991, p. 82
- Denniston, Alastair G. (1986). “The Government Code and Cypher School Between the Wars”. Intelligence and National Security. 1 (1): 48–70. doi:10.1080/02684528608431841.
- Smith, 2001, pp. 20–21
- Smith, 2001, pp. 18–19
- Aldrich, 2010, p. 18
- Gannon, Paul (2006). Colossus: Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret. Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1-84354-331-2.
- Alvarez, David (2001). “Most Helpful and Cooperative: GC&CS and the Development of American Diplomatic Cryptanalysis, 1941–1942”. In Smith, Michael; Erskine, Ralph (eds.). Action This Day: Bletchley Park from the Breaking of the Enigma Code to the Birth of the Modern Computer. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-0593049105.
- Erskine, Ralph; Smith, Michael, eds. (2011), The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, Biteback Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84954-078-0
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- Aldrich, 2010, p. 382
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- Croft, Jane (1 December 2015) UK spy agency GCHQ admits it carries out computer hacking. Financial Times
- Farrell, Henry (16 March 2017) Sean Spicer just suggested that Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump. Not so much. The Washington Post
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- “US makes formal apology to Britain after White House accuses GCHQ of wiretapping Trump Tower”. The Telegraph. 17 March 2017. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
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- Harding, Luke; Kirchgaessner, Stephanie; Hopkins, Nick (13 April 2017). “British spies were first to spot Trump team’s links with Russia”. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
- “British intelligence passed Trump associates’ communications with Russians on to US counterparts”. CNN. 14 April 2017. Retrieved 14 April2017.
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- “The Andrew Marr Show Interview: Theresa May, MP Home Secretary”(PDF). BBC. 23 November 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
Well I guess what he’s talking about is the fact that for certain aspects and certain of the more intrusive measures that our security service and police have available to them – i.e. Intercept, intercepting people’s telephones and some other intrusive measures – the decision is taken by the Secretary of State, predominantly me. A significant part of my job is looking at these warrants and signing these warrants. I think it’s… Some people argue that should be to judges….I think it’s very important that actually those decisions are being taken by somebody who is democratically accountable to the public. I think that’s an important part of our system. I think it’s a strength of our system.
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1. A declaration that the regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK which have been obtained by US authorities pursuant to Prism and/or Upstream does not contravene Articles 8 or 10 ECHR. 2. A declaration that the regime in respect of interception under ss8(4), 15 and 16 of the Regulation of investigatory Powers Act 2000 does not contravene Articles 8 or 10 ECHR and does not give rise to unlawful discrimination contrary to Article 14, read together with Articles 8 and/or 10 of the ECHR.
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- Johnson, John (1997). The Evolution of British Sigint: 1653–1939. HMSO. ASIN B002ALSXTC.
- Kahn, David (1991). Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939–1943. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0395427392.
- Smith, Michael (2001). “GC&CS and the First Cold War”. In Smith, Michael; Erskine, Ralph (eds.). Action This Day: Bletchley Park from the Breaking of the Enigma Code to the Birth of the Modern Computer. Bantam Press. ISBN 978-0593049105.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Government Communications Headquarters.|
- Official website
- Her Majesty’s Government Communications Centre
- GCHQ: Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency
- BBC: A final look at GCHQ’s top secret Oakley site in Cheltenham
- INCENSER, or how NSA and GCHQ are tapping internet cables