Inside The Top Secret Doughnut: A Visit To GCHQ

There’s an old joke that the world’s greatest secret agent was Beethoven. Didn’t know Beethoven was a secret agent? That’s why he was the greatest one! While most people have some idea about the CIA, MI6, and the GRU, agencies like the NRO and GCHQ keep a much lower profile. GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the United Kingdom’s electronic listening center housed in a 180 meter round doughnut. From there they listen to… well… everything. They are also responsible for codebreaking and can trace their origin back to Bletchley Park as well as back to the Great War. So what’s inside the Doughnut? National Geographic managed to get a tour of GCHQ and if you have any interest in spies, radios, cybersecurity, or codebreaking, it is worth having a look at it.

Of course, only about half of the GCHQ’s employees work in the Doughnut. Others are scattered about the UK and — probably — some in other parts of the world, too. According to the article, GCHQ had a hand in foiling 19 terrorist attacks, arresting at least two sex offenders, and prevented about £1.5 billion of tax evasion.

The agency wasn’t even mentioned in public until 1982. Before that, an American journalist wrote an article about the operation and was promptly deported. The article, of course, shows the agency in a favorable light, but it does mention that Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s controversial Tempora program to collect all online and telephone data within the UK. However, as one employee put it, “We save people’s lives, we stop bombs going off, we stop army units being killed in Afghanistan.”

As an aside, they also release a puzzle to the public once a year. We virtually went to a museum exhibit in London about GCHQ, and that post is also worth a look if you want to read more about the historical technology in the Doughnut.

31 thoughts on “Inside The Top Secret Doughnut: A Visit To GCHQ

  1. Agencies that operate in secrecy beyond any meaningful checks and balances should have no place in a democratic society. It has been proven time and time again that these entities hold immense power against the very people they’re supposed to serve and protect, as well as the elected officials supposed to oversee and control them. It has been proven time and time again that they will abuse their power, if only to preserve it or save their own asses whenever they screw up.

    1. I don’t think any agency does anything without oversight of at least highest ranking, most powerful elected officials. The secrecy and myth of being rogue, serves sole purpose to provide those elected officials impunity for, and deniability of their unpopular decisions regarding covert activities. Of course, the more one society takes pride in its democracy and transparency, the more its secret parts are deemed autonomous and omnipotent. Any sort of mutiny in such delicate parts of system would end up in series of bizzare accidents revealing or at least hinting the existence of yet another hypothetical unnamed secret governmental agency of “janitors”.

      1. You clearly have not read about Edward Snowden and the NSA.

        GCHQ was actually involved in a lot of illegal wiretapping and spying on the EU, as well. And that as an ally, cooperating with the USA against EU’s interests. This was long before Brexit.

        These are just two recent examples off the top of my head.

    2. Yea…no. Secret agencies are the things of kids imaginations. In the world of adult run lives, where personal freedoms and liberties matter, secrets have no place. If you can’t trust your people, why expect them to trust you.

    3. I’m mostly with you in this – the state can hold private entities to account, but who holds the state to account? Elections hold politicians to some account, but do nothing for the mass of civil service etc.

      That said, GCHQ is probably the best of a bad bunch – they’re either the best at using their powers for good (or at least the good of our citizens), or they’re the best at hiding what they’re doing! I suspect the former; in the U.K. we don’t have the same militaristic mindset that the US suffers from in policing etc. And because they keep a low profile compared to other similar agencies they don’t have much of a public face to care about saving.

  2. It isn’t clear from this article if they have foiled 19 terror attacks since 1919 or in the last year. And I think that my opinion of them would be different in the two cases.

    1. Directly from the article

      “But what does all this snooping around in the shadows actually achieve in the real world? Asked to provide details, the agency is understandably tight-lipped. They do, however, give the following examples: between 2018 and 2019 they helped foil 19 terrorist attacks, and prevented around £1.5 billion of tax evasion; they contributed to the arrest of sex offenders”

          1. The Doughnut building was opened in 2004, but GCHQ existed before that.
            And as far as US jurisdiction goes, obviously there no laws preventing GCHQ from spying on US citizens, and of course as members of five-eyes, if they found out anything they’d pass it on to the NSA. So, if the NSA found a US citizen they were interested in, they can mention them to GCHQ, who can then provide them with information without the NSA spying on anyone. *Allegedly*.

    1. Why did you waste your time posting this? I’m no apologist for the secret services but it clearly states in the article that that’s not the only thing they’ve done. Besides I think sex offenders fall more under the jurisdiction of the National Crime Agency.

      1. My point is why did they even bother reporting the stat when it’s so small? I see it more as an embarrassment than an achievement.
        Also, why did you waste your time responding?

  3. I understand that their hiring practices are still very much in the same vein as those suspicions you’ve recounted. The issue apparently being that the people they hire shouldn’t be blackmailable.

  4. I had dinner with a friend and was talking to her bc about his time in the service and he told as an it guy he setup server farms in the mideast that capture ALL cell gsm traffic countrywide in real time onto big multevel. Buildings filled floor to ceiling with servers. Then after asking he said his deployment was over that he was doing a special contract extension doing work for the state dept. Doing pretty much the same thing only much bigger. After expressing how shocking that was to me asking what for who for why for on domestic soil. He just laughed at how naieve i was and said he didnt know who would be accessing wasnt told why it was being built here and that even if he did know he certainly wouldnt be allowed to talk about it that hes pretty much just a soldier that does IT, questions and answers arent part of the job he just follows orders and configures networking. One think that stood out to me is that even tho the contract extension was thru his service branch the project was for the state dept. And sounds like it was serving as almost like a buffer between the enduser agencies and the techs setting up the network and server rooms. Another friend i had worked at guantanamo guarding detainees and i made some comment joking about detainee bdsm porn (this was not long after the whole waterboarding gate scandal broke in the news) and she said hell no everything she and her branches intel people was strictly by the book and professional that any kind of abuse or even taunting or disrespecting the prisoners cOuld land you some article violation charges and ruin ur career with a lengthy military prison sentence as well. She also said she wasnt allowed to talk about the interrogation stuff really but she did say that it wasnt really a secret that stuff happened because some prisoners that were segregated or isolated often were transferred somewhere else for interrogation and that the people taking them away and returning them were obviously not military and maybe not even government by the way they looked. Anyways the point i was getting to is that all the really sensitive stuff that goes on is compartmentalized so thatt no single person branch or agency has a real clear picture or whats going on and what is know is usually restricted info behind security clearances that doesnt get disclosed to the public and only a general sense of the details are given to oversight, and lastly anything that is in legal/diplomatic grey zones is likely outsourced or if sketchy enough privately contracted so that any gov. Involvement can be denied if details of shady activity pop up. U can only oversee whAts been done by the gov. Agency or dept. U subpeona and if projects are tasked out to others then sub contracted and sub sub tasked and contracted to private entities, then u can see how its possible that oversight bodies can have a fairly limited view of what they are supposed to be monitoring.

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