|Formed||1 November 1919Government Code and Cypher School)(as|
|Jurisdiction||Her Majesty's Government|
|Employees||5,806 (March 2016)|
|Annual budget||Single Intelligence Account (£3.02 billion in 2017-2018 financial year)[nb 1]|
Government Communications Headquarters, commonly known as 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 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.
During the First World War, the British Army and Royal Navy had separate signals intelligence agencies, MI1b and NID25 (initially known as Room 40) respectively. In 1919, the Cabinet's Secret Service Committee, chaired by Lord Curzon, recommended that a peacetime codebreaking agency should be created, a task which was given to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair merged staff from NID25 and MI1b into the new organisation, which initially consisted of around 25-30 officers and a similar number of clerical staff. It was titled the "Government Code and Cypher School", a cover-name which was chosen by Victor Forbes of the Foreign Office. Alastair Denniston, who had been a member of NID25, was appointed as its operational head. It was initially under the control of the Admiralty and located in Watergate House, Adelphi, London. Its public function was "to advise as to the security of codes and cyphers used by all Government departments and to assist in their provision", but also had a secret directive to "study the methods of cypher communications used by foreign powers". GC&CS officially formed on 1 November 1919, and produced its first decrypt prior to that date, on 19 October.
Before the Second World War, GC&CS was a relatively small department. By 1922, the main focus of GC&CS was on diplomatic traffic, with "no service traffic ever worth circulating" and so, at the initiative of Lord Curzon, it was transferred from the Admiralty to the Foreign Office. GC&CS came under the supervision of Hugh Sinclair, who by 1923 was both the Chief of SIS and Director of GC&CS. In 1925, both organisations were co-located on different floors of Broadway Buildings, opposite St. James's Park. Messages decrypted by GC&CS were distributed in blue-jacketed files that became known as "BJs". In the 1920s, GC&CS was successfully reading Soviet Union diplomatic cyphers. However, in May 1927, during a row over clandestine Soviet support for the General Strike and the distribution of subversive propaganda, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin made details from the decrypts public.
During the Second World War, GC&CS was based largely at Bletchley Park, in present-day Milton Keynes, working on understanding the German Enigma machine and Lorenz ciphers. In 1940, GC&CS was working on the diplomatic codes and ciphers of 26 countries, tackling over 150 diplomatic cryptosystems. Senior staff included Alastair Denniston, Oliver Strachey, Dilly Knox, John Tiltman, Edward Travis, Ernst Fetterlein, Josh Cooper, Donald Michie, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Joan Clarke, Max Newman, William Tutte, I. J. (Jack) Good, Peter Calvocoressi and Hugh Foss.
An outstation in the Far East, the Far East Combined Bureau was set up in Hong Kong in 1935 and moved to Singapore in 1939. Subsequently, with the Japanese advance down the Malay Peninsula, the Army and RAF codebreakers went to the Wireless Experimental Centre in Delhi, India. The Navy codebreakers in FECB went to Colombo, Ceylon, then to Kilindini, near Mombasa, Kenya.
GC&CS was renamed the "Government Communications Headquarters" in June 1946.
GCHQ was at first based in Eastcote, but in 1951 moved to the outskirts of Cheltenham, setting up two sites there - Oakley and Benhall. Duncan Campbell and Mark Hosenball revealed the existence of GCHQ in 1976 in an article for Time Out; as a result, Hosenball was deported from the UK. GCHQ had a very low profile in the media until 1983 when the trial of Geoffrey Prime, a KGB mole within GCHQ, created considerable media interest.
Since the days of the Second World War, US and British intelligence have shared information. For the GCHQ this means that it shares information with, and gets information from, the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States.
In 1984, GCHQ was the centre of a political row when the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher prohibited its employees from belonging to a trade union. It was claimed that joining a union would be in conflict with national security. A number of mass national one-day strikes were held to protest this decision, seen as the first step to wider bans on trade unions. Appeals to British Courts and European Commission of Human Rights were unsuccessful. The government offered a sum of money to each employee who agreed to give up their union membership. Appeal to the ILO resulted in a decision that government's actions were in violation of Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention.
The ban was eventually lifted by the incoming Labour government in 1997, with the Government Communications Group of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) being formed to represent interested employees at all grades. In 2000, a group of 14 former GCHQ employees, who had been dismissed after refusing to give up their union membership, were offered re-employment, which three of them accepted.
The Intelligence Services Act 1994 placed the activities of the intelligence agencies on a legal footing for the first time, defining their purpose, and the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee was given a remit to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the three intelligence agencies. The objectives of GCHQ were defined as working as "in the interests of national security, with particular reference to the defence and foreign policies of Her Majesty's government; in the interests of the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom; and in support of the prevention and the detection of serious crime". During the introduction of the Intelligence Agency Act in late 1993, the former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had described GCHQ as a "full-blown bureaucracy", adding that future bodies created to provide oversight of the intelligence agencies should "investigate whether all the functions that GCHQ carries out today are still necessary."
In late 1993 civil servant Michael Quinlan advised a deep review of the work of GCHQ following the conclusion of his "Review of Intelligence Requirements and Resources", which had imposed a 3% cut on the agency. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Jonathan Aitken, subsequently held face to face discussions with the intelligence agency directors to assess further savings in the wake of Quinlan's review. Aldrich (2010) suggests that Sir John Adye, the then Director of GCHQ performed badly in meetings with Aitken, leading Aitken to conclude that GCHQ was "suffering from out-of-date methods of management and out-of-date methods for assessing priorities". GCHQ's budget was £850 million in 1993, (£1.74 billion as of 2019) compared to £125 million for the Security Service and SIS (MI5 and MI6). In December 1994 the businessman Roger Hurn was commissioned to begin a review of GCHQ, which was concluded in March 1995. Hurn's report recommended a cut of £100 million in GCHQ's budget; such a large reduction had not been suffered by any British intelligence agency since the end of World War II. The J Division of GCHQ, which had collected SIGINT on Russia, disappeared as a result of the cuts. The cuts had been mostly reversed by 2000 in the wake of threats from violent non-state actors, and risks from increased terrorism, organised crime and illegal access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
David Omand became the Director of GCHQ in 1996, and greatly restructured the agency in the face of new and changing targets and rapid technological change. Omand introduced the concept of "Sinews" (or "SIGINT New Systems") which allowed more flexible working methods, avoiding overlaps in work by creating fourteen domains, each with a well-defined working scope. The tenure of Omand also saw the planning and the creation of The Doughnut, GCHQ's modern headquarters. Located on a 176-acre site in Benhall, near Cheltenham, The Doughnut would be the largest building constructed for secret intelligence operations outside the United States.
Operations at GCHQ's Chung Hom Kok listening station in Hong Kong ended in 1994. GCHQ's Hong Kong operations were extremely important to their relationship with the NSA, who contributed investment and equipment to the station. In anticipation of the transfer of Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997, the Hong Kong stations operations were moved to Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station in Geraldton in Western Australia.
Operations that used GCHQ's intelligence-gathering capabilities in the 1990s included the monitoring of communications of Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War, of dissident republican terrorists and the Real IRA, of the various factions involved in the Yugoslav Wars, and of the criminal Kenneth Noye. In the mid 1990s GCHQ began to assist in the investigation of cybercrime.
At the end of 2003, GCHQ moved to a new circular HQ (popularly known as "The Doughnut"). At the time, it was the second-largest public-sector building project in Europe, with an estimated cost of £337 million. The new building, which was designed by Gensler and constructed by Carillion, became the base for all of GCHQ's Cheltenham operations.
The public spotlight fell on GCHQ in late 2003 and early 2004 following the sacking of Katharine Gun after she leaked to The Observer a confidential email from agents at the United States' National Security Agency addressed to GCHQ agents about the wiretapping of UN delegates in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
GCHQ gains its intelligence by monitoring a wide variety of communications and other electronic signals. For this, a number of stations have been established in the UK and overseas. The listening stations are at Cheltenham itself, Bude, Scarborough, Ascension Island, and with the United States at Menwith Hill. Ayios Nikolaos Station in Cyprus is run by the British Army for GCHQ.
As revealed by Edward Snowden in The Guardian, GCHQ spied on foreign politicians visiting the 2009 G-20 London Summit by eavesdropping phonecalls and emails and monitoring their computers, and in some cases even ongoing after the summit via keyloggers that had been installed during the summit.
According to Edward Snowden, GCHQ has two principal umbrella programs for collecting communications:
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 Computer Network Exploitation 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 operation swept up the IP address of Internet users visiting websites, and 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 were passed on to US agencies.
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 Computation at Oxford University and the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research at the University of Bristol.
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 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 cybersecurity. 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).
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 Abdelhakim Belhaj, a Libyan opponent of the former Gaddafi regime, and his wife Fatima Bouchard. 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.
On 25 May, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the GCHQ is guilty of violating data privacy rules through their bulk interception of communications, and does not provide sufficient protections for confidential journalistic material because it gathers communications in bulk.
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.
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 and operational heads of GCHQ and GC&CS:
The GCHQ Certified Training (GCT) scheme was established to certify two main levels of cybersecurity training. There are also degree and masters level courses. These are:
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 cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity in the, and is based on the IISP Skills Framework.
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.
GCHQ appeared on the Doctor Who 2019 special "Resolution" where the Reconnaissance Scout Dalek storms the facility and exterminates the staff in order to use the organisation's resources to summon a Dalek fleet.
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.
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.