Snowden and beyond.

Edward Snowden is a matter of months younger than me, in his early thirties. Yet the impact he has made on our modern, or are we now in the post modern world is almost unfathomable. In fact it is so unfathomable that it is almost too large an idea to be appreciated by the normal human brain. So we just don’t process it. If we did then I feel that it would be being talked about by more people. Not just the Glen Greenwalds of this world.

Snowden’s documents confirmed that government agencies such as GCHQ and the NSA were and still are collecting information from everyone. Everyone. Not just the perceived “enemy” but everyone. Allied countries, their own citizens, foreign diplomats on diplomatic trips. The breadth and depth of the revelations are quite breath taking.

Now, let me refocus, what does this mean for GCHQ? I think in reality, probably very little. Due to the nature of “The War On Terror” and how communication technology works in the modern world. The only way they can do their job, is by collecting data the way we know they do. All of us normal citizens don’t deny that we like what the security services do. I don’t really want to be blown up and I’m sure you don’t either and they help stop that. That being said, I’m not sure I want the government of any country having free unbridled access to my communications without any legal backing, even if that is my own country and I have nothing to hide.

GCHQ was once an outward looking operation. Focusing purely on foreign actors. Now we live in a world where e-commerce and communication render physical borders largely pointless. As such it will have to spend time looking at those it is trying to protect to ensure that it catches everything.

Let’s not beat about the bush here. GCHQ is watching, that is an insoluble fact. We have seen the level of access they have in to the very backbone of the communication networks and organisations we all use. By watching films such as Citizen Four or reading The Intercept, or Salon, or the Guardian we can see the capabilities they have to fight those they perceive as against them. The biggest battle GCHQ and its companions will have as we rumble in to the twenty first century, will be how it defines its enemies and how the law defends those choices.

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The end of the Bloc to the beginning of Snowden.

With the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the security services begin trying to justify their role in this new world. The target had changed, it was no longer a single sprawling enemy, but smaller fast moving organisations, crossing the boundaries between “state” actors and criminal. Furthermore the internet revolution was changing how everyone communicated. Previously security services had to intercept a single stream of data moving between two points. With the introduction of packetised communication utilised in the internet, there was no single point of intercept.

Put simply, whilst GCHQ was dealing with restructuring to validate its role post Soviet Union, it also had to completely alter its intelligence gathering methods to adapt to this new technology. A truly awesome challenge. 

In 1994, GCHQ was also placed on a statutory footing for the first time with the putting in to law of the Intelligence Services Act. This stated.

“An Act to make provision about the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters, including provision for the issue of warrants and authorisations enabling certain actions to be taken and for the issue of such warrants and authorisations to be kept under review; to make further provision about warrants issued on applications by the Security Service; to establish a procedure for the investigation of complaints about the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters; to make provision for the establishment of an Intelligence and Security Committee to scrutinise all three of those bodies; and for connected purposes.” (From Wikipedia)

For the first time, the security force were accountable.

However, with the outbreak of hostilities in the Balkans, it was made clear to UK government that some element of traditional SIGINT was required and GCHQ came to the fore. A massive investment in a new building in Cheltenham, colloquially called “the donut” was made, with the intention of bringing all GCHQ staff together geographically for the first time. Then 9/11 occurred. This attack and the following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the need for good intelligence, and this new building was already too small for those needs.

Personally, I remember being at University in 2002 – 2004 as the Iraq war was beginning. Spending too may late nights sat in the I.T. labs going down the rabbit holes surrounding conspiracy theories. Treading the strange world, where words like PRISM, New World Order, and Bilderberg Group came together. I remember talking to friends and family at the time about it and being told I was crazy. My Dad the only exception to that rule and I now know why. Then in 2013 an NSA contractor called Edward Snowden appeared and blew everyone’s minds wide open.

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Fighting the Electronic war – 1950’s – 1990’s..

The rise of GCHQ can most definitely be pinned to the rise in electronic communication. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) by its very nature needs signals from which it can draw its intelligence. These signals in the 1950’s were relatively simple. “Communications structures before the internet can be thought of as fixed networks in which any ‘message’ (telephone call, fax, or data transmission) travelled over a single identifiable path between two communicators.” (taken from They stayed this way for the whole of the cold war, finally being usurped by the internet and the knowledge revolution that this has bought about. This made interception of communication by GCHQ relatively simple. Furthermore, the target of its efforts from the end of World War Two was also very simple. Russia and the Soviet Bloc. The largest military threat to Great Britain, until its collapse in the 1990’s. One target, simple interception. Easy.

Britain in the 1950’s just about had hold of its empire and so had listening stations around the world. The American’s due to the special relationship could piggy back off these too. They were territory short, but technology rich. The special relationship, was and is one of necessity rather than warm chumminess. This of course changed as British power dwindled in the post war years, but key British stations, such as Hong Kong and Cyprus, kept the relationship solid for the rest of the twentieth century and in to the twenty first.

At home, GCHQ actually became GCHQ in the post war period. It moved its main operations from Bletchley Park to Eastcote in Middlesex in1946 and then to Cheltenham in the 1950’s. Then relatively speaking GCHQ kept its head down and out of the spotlight. Whilst failures in other services, such as the scandal around Kim Philby, were being reported, there is little if any reporting regarding GCHQ. MI5 and MI6 were portrayed in book form by Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, portrayed in films by Sean Connery and radio by Sir Alec Guinness, but no glamourisation of GCHQ ever appeared. But then I guess the intercepting of radio transmissions or tapping telephones is less enigmatic to a reader or viewer than the personal relationships involved in human intelligence operations. (HUMINT).

This period was not all sunshine for GCHQ and by association the NSA. They completely missed the date of the first test of Russia’s burgeoning nuclear capability, the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Proving that even the ability to hear everything, still involves some element of knowing what you’re listening for.

Minor scandal in the late 1970’s revolving around the journalist Duncan Campbell and the ABC Trial, followed up the Geoffrey Prime affair. Possibly the biggest fail of UK intelligence since the Cambridge five, began to bring the work of the service to light. This was not helped by Margaret Thatcher doing what she did best. Attacking unionisation, this time inside GCHQ. All told the work of the organisation was bought to light and with scrutiny on spending at the end of the cold war, GCHQ was becoming firmly implanted in the common psyche.

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Bletchley – The beginning.

GCHQ started life during the first world war. Its most notable success of the time being the interception of the telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Count Zimmermann. This detailed that the German forces were going to start unrestricted attacks on all shipping, including neutral American vessels. It also detailed promises to Mexico of giving her U.S. states in return for entering the war on the German side. This incident was crucial in bringing the U.S. in to the war on the side of the British.

With the end of World War One, the importance of intercepting enemy communication was not lost. The Government Codes and Cypher School (GC&CS) was created to continue the work in peacetime. In 1922, the school was passed from the control of the Admiralty to that of C, the commander of SIS (MI6). In reality, it remained separate to SIS, choosing how it collected information and developed itself during this period.

With the slide towards war in the mid 1930’s, GC&CS extended its work to military and naval intelligence. After the Munich Crisis of 1938, a decision was made to move the school out of London to limit any damage the expected bombing of the city at the start of the war would have. The site chosen was Bletchley Park.

Bletchley is now almost common knowledge. A film has been made and Alan Turing, arguably the inventor of modern computing, has been held up as the hero he was and still is. The stories of Colossus and the cracking of the German Enigma code are no doubt rolling off the tongue of many school aged child. Even GCHQ’s own website details the operation, so there is no point in me retelling the story here.

What I find most interesting about this period, are the personalities. The story we are sold, includes a mere handful of people, Turing, Tommy Flowers etc, when in reality at its peak 10,000 people worked at Bletchley Park. One can reasonably assume, that this is a rather good indicator of just how secret GCHQ and the security services are of their work and how good they are of maintaining that secrecy. GCHQ’s website key figures of UK SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) but the last entry on this page is James Ellis, the inventor of Public Key Cryptography, who joined the service in 1952. Everything from the modern era is much less widely spoken about, although not completely impenetrable as you will see.

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