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.