GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency
For readers interested in GCHQ's technical contributions there is a good section on its secret invention of public key cryptography four years before a very similar algorithm was published by US academics (the GCHQ website today protests, "the Americans were credited with the invention but GCHQ actually got there first!"). Its later attempts to suppress public use of the technology are also unpicked (though oddly enough omitted from GCHQ's website).
For those same readers the book's unavoidable lack of many technical tales elsewhere may come as a minor disappointment. Keeping the technical details of eavesdropping secret has been GCHQ's business for 70 years and it is still paramount.
As Aldrich catches up to the modern era it nevertheless becomes clear that GCHQ has slowly but surely come under increasing scrutiny. Just as GCHQ and the NSA created a transatlantic axis of secrecy, a transatlantic partnership of sorts revealed their true purposes. The book explains how between them the investigative journalists Duncan Campbell, a Brit, and James Bamford, an American, had exploded official myths about the signals intelligence agencies by the mid-1980s.
The current era has cast yet greater light on GCHQ as it attempts to reconfigure itself to divine intelligence from the internet. Last year it was prompted by reporting in The Register and the Sunday Times to comment on a major technology project, Mastering the Internet. For an organisation whose public statements are normally confined to car parking or planning disputes with local residents even this non-denial-denial was a significant development in terms of its engagement with debate.
One significant development at Cheltenham in the last year is missing from from the book. It is now home to the Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC), a small unit devoted to monitoring internet-borne threats to Britain's national security. This activity is also demanding increased openness, as it will rely on cooperation from industry to gather intelligence on foreign digital espionage efforts, which are seen as the main threat despite much American huffing and puffing on "cyberwar". CSOC representatives even make occasional conference appearances under their own names and job titles.
Aldrich's final chapter is instead devoted to GCHQ's equally current Interception Modernisation Programme and its flailing attempts to divine intelligence in the new universe of communications birthed by the Internet Protocol. His conclusion, that by harvesting ever more data GCHQ in the 21st century simply reflects the society around it, ought to give all who read this timely and highly recommended history pause for thought.
Unlike fellow historians Christopher Andrew, who wrote last year's official history of MI5, and Keith Jeffery, responsible for the forthcoming authorised book about MI6, Aldrich did not have access to internal agency archives (though he does thank the GCHQ historian, "M"). That he offers such a coherent product on limited signals is an achievement easily worthy of GCHQ's own analysts. ®
GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency, by Richard J Aldrich, published by HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-00-727847-3. RRP £30.
The author has posted research material on his website here.