Rapid changes in technology are posing “unique challenges” to the security services which will face “enormous complexity” in the future, the boss of GCHQ has said.
Speaking 100 years since Government Communications Headquarters was formed, director Jeremy Fleming described society as being in a “period of accelerated change” with technological advances leaving the spy agency needing to alter the way it works.
GCHQ, which rarely speaks publicly about its work but has tried to become less secretive in recent years, is marking its centenary with a series of events including an exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
Mr Fleming said: “We’re living through a period of accelerated change in terms of technology: that comes with huge advantages and unique challenges for society. It means the way we work is changing.
“But throughout our history we have always tackled developments in communications to stay one step ahead.
“We have always risen to the challenge that change brings.”
Mr Fleming described the Five Eyes intelligence group – made up of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada which will mark its 75th anniversary in 2021 – as an “extraordinary partnership that plays a pivotal part in global security and stability, and still stands strong today.”
GCHQ was set up on November 1 1919 as a peacetime “cryptanalytic” unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b).
During the Second World War, personnel moved to Bletchley Park where they decrypted German messages, most famously by breaking the Enigma code.
The agency’s best-known former member of staff is Alan Turing, the wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science who had a “fearless approach to daunting problems”.
Turing, who is to appear on the Bank of England’s next £50 note when it enters circulation by end of 2021, played a pivotal role at Bletchley Park in breaking the code which is said to have helped to shorten the length of the Second World War by years, saving millions of lives.
GCHQ regards his technical innovations as “ahead of their time” and they still inform its work today.
In the early 1950s, the service moved its headquarters from the London suburbs of Eastcote to Cheltenham but it also moved to other offices in the centre of the capital to keep a base for handling secret paperwork.
In April the location, which had been the London base for more than 65 years, was revealed.
Unknown to the public, intelligence officers worked to protect national security from the drab-looking building on Palmer Street, opposite St James’s Park Tube station in Westminster, since 1953.
Known as Britain’s listening post, it also has bases in Bude in Cornwall, Scarborough, Lincolnshire and Harrogate, with another office in Manchester due to open by the end of the year.
Its existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1983.
Working alongside MI5 and MI6, over the years GCHQ has looked to tackle serious cyber, terrorist, criminal, and state threats and attacks, including investigating the Novichok poisoning in March last year.
It helped foil 23 attacks against the nation in the last four years and over 2017/18 it helped disrupt terrorist operations in at least four European countries.
It has also to the arrests prolific child sex abusers Matthew Falder and James Alexander and prevented about £1.5 billion of tax evasion between 2018–2019 as well as raising £1.4million for charity over the last decade.
Mr Fleming said: “For GCHQ, it has been a century of shortening wars, saving lives and giving the UK a technical edge.
“Our centenary is a chance to celebrate those achievements and to thank those men and women who have given themselves to this work. But it is also a chance to look forward.
“I can’t predict what GCHQ will look like 100 years from now.
“Who we are has been shaped by the changing threats and technology around us.
“In the future we will continue to face enormous complexity but also enormous opportunity.”
He said although hugely different to the organisation that began back in 1919, there was “much that is recognisable in our DNA”.
He added that while GCHQ “cannot shout about our mission”, he welcomed a shift towards it being “increasingly transparent”.
In 2016, GCHQ became the first of the country’s spy agencies on Twitter and has since joined Instagram.