A new exhibition that is less James Bond and more Q looks at the history of how British spies kept their secrets safe from enemies.
It’s a story of governments trying to stop the wrong people reading things they shouldn’t — an issue that dates back to Elizabethan times and coded letters right up to the super computers of today.
Some of the most exciting parts of the display are the WW2 and Cold War communications tools.
In a modern world of computer software and smartphone apps, here is the physical apparatus that once kept British secrets safe from enemies. From old-fashioned telephones to overblown typewriters, these were the transition from the mechanical machines of the past to the silicon of today — they are of the electro-mechanical age.
Two modern-ish telephones are just about visible, presumably slightly obscured as the technology isn’t that old — is the radio telephone used by Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War to have secure conversations — and it may surprise a lot of people to see, a secure phone line used by The Queen.
As someone who often converses with heads of state and government ministers, she needs to speak confidentially as well as the governments need to. But it’s a bit like discovering that your grandmother has a penchant for heavy metal music — totally unexpected.
It’s also here that a huge machine is easy to miss — the first time anyone outside the security services has seen a 5-UCO, a WW2 communications device so secretive that hardly anyone was to know of its existence, and when decommissioned it was thought all of them were destroyed.
GCHQ kept one.
And to show how even the most state-of-the-art systems can look bafflingly old fashioned — one machine was using punchcards to store their security key — right through the 1980s.
One very irksome thing about the display is how they’ve put some of the most interesting objects together in a cluster, with a corner in the display cases — making it quite a crowded area.
The exhibition also looks at Soviet spies who worked in the UK, using their own cypher machines to send secrets back to their motherland. Some were caught among a media frenzy about reds under the bed, others are only known thanks to discoveries long after they had fled the country.
One aspect of the display that’s missing though is the paranoia. OK, it’s in the newspaper cutouts, but I suspect a lot of people wandering through this fake room and looking at the handful of objects wont understand the real impact this story had at the time.
It wasn’t just the fear of nuclear annihilation that scared people, but assimilation by a secretive group who wanted to take over the country. Secret communists seeking to wheedle themselves into positions of power, to promote their fellow communists, and one day you wake up living in a satellite of the Soviet Union.
That’s why the spy scandal was such a huge affair — not the spying, but that here were some ordinary folk working to overthrow democracy and impose communism. Was that ambitious person you worked with simply seeking a pay rise, or working for a foreign government. Could you really trust your neighbours.
Today we worry more about computer hackers breaking our computers — but back then, the hackers of the minds had a much scarier plan.
Obviously the Enigma machine is here, because no exhibition about spies today is complete without one. Somehow, in just a few years, the Enigma machine has moved from being a super-secret typewriter that few had heard of to a tabloid celebrity of exhibitions, popping up all over the place. This is the second one I have seen this year, and that’s just in London exhibitions.
What’s rather rarer to see, and does a decent bit of myth busting is an older Enigma machine, bought by the UK from Germany before the war started. The Enigma was sold openly for a while for anyone to buy. Obviously, the whole point was that it was thought to be unbreakable, so the efforts to break the code are no less legendary anyway.
While Turning gets most of the glory, for the maths, it was a Post Office engineer, Tommy Flowers who made the computer — and what is to my mind, probably the most important document in the entire exhibition is here, supporting his plans for an electronic machine to process the calculations.
The move from mechanical to valves and then to silicon had begun!
As an exhibition that marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of GCHQ, it’s not a huge surprise that they are here — with a Lego model of their famous doughnut shaped head office to a video screen showing glimpses inside their building — all very bland and office like frankly.
It’s part of the remit of any museum to excite young people and hopefully encourage them into a career in the sciences, and GCHQ are open about their hope that the exhibition will spur an interest in computer security — for themselves or industry in general.
This need for a government agency to encourage the next generation of computer coders in industry is a sign of how the sort of deverstating weapons that only governments could deploy are today in the hands of many many more people.
In a sense, we are at war.
War between nations is increasingly difficult, but war by hidden proxies is a massively growing threat, with shadowing teams working hard to find holes in software that can then be unleashed.
Ukraine and Estonia suffered from presumed Russian aggression, while Iran is thought to have been attacked by Israel and the USA. We are at war today — just that it’s being fought in the realm of computers not with guns and bombs, so we don’t really notice it until it affects us.
This exhibition looks back a bit and yet gives us a vision of our future wars. Lets hope it doesn’t end up like a Taste of Armageddon.
Even within the secretive GCHQ there are even more secretive departments, such as the UKKPA — the division that generates the secure keys used by modern computers. These keys are the heart of modern security, a public key that anyone can use to encrypt information and its counterpart, the private key that is the only way to decrypt the message and read it.
This technique was developed by GCHQ researcher James H Ellis in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1976 that people outside the security services came up with the same idea. These private keys are now some of the most closely guarded parts of any security system, and two of the portable keys are on display.
This, one of the very few back-lit displays in the exhibition makes taking photos difficult. Hmmm! Protecting secrets!
Considering the thin glass their behind though, I can only presume that the units on display are empty shells, as there’s no way such a super-secret gadget would be allowed in an exhibition with its silicon intact.
Remember the punch-cards from the past, amazingly GCHQ still uses punched paper tape to distribute its secret keys at times. This exceptionally ancient technology is now so old that there’s hardly anyone around who could make use of the tape if they got their hands on one. Security through obsolescence.
While most of the objects on display are behind normal exhibition glass, one is in a dramatically stronger display. A normal modern laptop computer — infected with the WannaCry virus.
A virus that caused havoc across the globe, less because of the damage it could do to devices, but thanks the “kick up the arse” that it gave to organisations that computer security is actually kinda-important — mainly because the virus targeted a flaw that had been fixed several years earlier, and it was up to computer owners to implement the patch.
Security managers in companies and organisations being hauled up to the bosses and screamed at as to why that 3-year old security patch was never applied. Most home computers will do that automatically — but corporate IT are — or at least we hope, were — often laggards in that area.
Applying software updates is fast becoming the “careless talk costs lives” of the past, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see WW2-style posters reminding people to keep their software up to date?
As an exhibition, they’ve managed to covey a somewhat nebulous concept — secrecy — in a manner that’s accessible withot baffling people with the maths. It’s more a history of objects than concepts.
Of course, what we see on display are only there because they’re no longer in use — what secrets remain hidden in GCHQ?