Top Secret: delving into the shrouded history of GCHQ

To mark the intelligence agency’s centenary, a new exhibition at the Science Museum is spotlighting the role it played in historic events including World War Two and the Cold War, along with the rapidly changing landscape of cyber security

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that our intelligence and security services are shrouded our secrecy; secrets are essentially what they trade in after all.

While not much is known about the intelligence work carried out by the Government Communication Headquarters – better known by its acronym GCHQ – at its site in Cheltenham, the public is set to get a rare glimpse into its inner workings in a new exhibition at the Science Museum.

Enigma M1070 © Science Museum, GCHQ

The show marks the 100th anniversary of the intelligence agency, and features never-before-seen historic artefacts such as the 5-UCO, one of the first electronic and fully unbreakable cipher machines that was developed to handle secret messages during the Second World War, and the Pickwick secure telephone used by prime ministers including Harold Macmillan during the Cold War.

There are also objects of more recent significance on display, including a computer infected with the WannaCry ransomware that affected thousands of people and organisations including the NHS in 2017, and the remains of the crushed hard drive alleged to contain top secret information which was given by whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian in 2013.

Pickwick phone © Science Museum, GCHQ

As well as celebrating GCHQ’s intriguing history, the exhibition is also intended to provoke discussion about the challenges of protecting the country in the new cyber security era, and encouraging people to consider the intelligence services as a career choice.

“For the first time the public will be given a glimpse into our secret history … and – as the threats to the UK become more diverse and more complex – it’s a chance to encourage the next generation of recruits,” says GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming.

© Jody Kingzett, Science Museum Group

One thing that the show fails to address is that GCHQ hasn’t been without its critics over the years. Only last the year the European Court of Human Rights ruled that its methods for bulk interception of online communications (also revealed as part of the Snowden leak) were a breach of people’s privacy, and failed to provide sufficient surveillance safeguards.

In an unfortunate twist, the exhibition itself has also become the subject controversy, as street art collective has withdrawn its Facebook adhack poster project from the show in protest against its main sponsor Raytheon, which is said to be selling missiles to Saudi Arabia.

Protest Stencil’s Facebook Ad Hack poster campaign

Protest Stencil says: “Back in March, the Science Museum got in touch saying they were planning an exhibition about data and data breaches. They asked if they could display one of our Facebook adhack posters from last year. We agreed, thinking it was for an exhibition about the perils of social media and data capture.

“Then we found out that the event was being used as a promotional tool by Raytheon, one of the biggest arms companies in the world. We won’t be part of this kind of artwashing. We hope other artists will also choose not to lend their work to exhibitions that seek to normalise death and destruction.”

Enigma M1070 © Science Museum, GCHQ

The Science Museum says: “Raytheon is an important partner and its support alongside other corporate sponsors, individual funders, trusts and foundations allowed us to deliver this world-leading exhibition to our audiences free of charge. We respect the artists’ decision though are disappointed that our visitors will miss out on one interesting perspective on concerns around privacy in a digital age.

“Visitors to Top Secret will experience remarkable stories of communications intelligence and cyber security, supporting our mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers; a goal all our partners strongly support.”

M209 B ciphermachine © Science Museum, GCHQ

It’s not the first museum to be accused of artwashing either; Extinction Rebellion recently refused its nomination for Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum due to its choice of sponsor, insurance firm Beazley.

Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security is running until 23 February 2020. Entry is free;