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The last British secret
on 8 October 2010
GCHQ, by Richard J Aldrich
Like most former employees of GCHQ, I did not have much idea of what went on outside my particular section. To satisfy my curiosity I have read all three recently published volumes on this notorious establishment, of which this, as a serious history, is the most weighty. That such a detailed account was needed is undeniable, considering the major contribution to our national survival made by this band of dedicated codebreakers, as we now know them to be, coupled with its reputation as "The last British secret".
Every significant event in its development is charted, from its beginnings in 1919 as the Government Code and Cypher School, through the years of the second world war when a massively expanded team at Bletchley Park cracked the Nazi Enigma code, to modern times when the former business of monitoring foreign states has to a large degree been overtaken by the need to combat terrorism and international crime.
The extent to which information derived by GCHQ has played a part in international happenings will be a revelation to many. It is plain that in the modern world this country still needs effective monitoring, or Sigint as it is known, to protect its interests. However not all will approve the way in which the emphasis is now on recording details of all electronic communications, and of the individual citizens who send and receive them, enabled by astronomical computing power. There are moral questions here, as well as our willingness to devote serious resources to acquiring the technology, much of which already exists. In this respect it is fortunate that the British have long enjoyed a policy of sharing Sigint with the United States, and it could well be that we will ultimately be dependent on it.