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.

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Espionage On Display As GCHQ Hosts A Temporary Exhibit

At the top of the British electronic intelligence agency is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a very public entity whose circular building can easily be found by any inquisitive soul prepared to drive just off the A40 in Cheltenham which is about two hours west of London. But due to the nature of its work it is also one of the most secretive of UK agencies, from which very little public information is released. With over a century of history behind it and with some truly groundbreaking inventions under its belt it is rumoured to maintain a clandestine technology museum that would rewrite a few history books and no doubt fascinate the Hackaday readership.

Perhaps the most famous of all its secrets was the wartime Colossus, the first all-electronic stored program digital computer, which took an unauthorised book in the 1970s to bring to public attention. Otherwise its historical artifacts have been tantalisingly out-of-reach, hinted at but never shown.

A temporary exhibition at the Science Museum in London then should be a must-visit for anyone with an interest in clandestine technology. Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security occupies the basement gallery, and includes among other exhibits a fascinating selection of artifacts from the Government agency. On a trip to London I met up with a friend, and we went along to take a look.

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