Feature

FAQs

Last Updated: 08 Sep 2016
As a secret organisation, there is much we cannot disclose about our work, but here are the not-so-secret things we can tell you about.

Our organisation

What do the initials GCHQ stand for?

GCHQ is the Government Communications Headquarters, one of the three UK Intelligence and Security Agencies, along with MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

What does GCHQ do?

GCHQ protects the UK and its citizens from individuals, groups and countries who wish to do us harm, or damage us financially. GCHQ intelligence keeps our deployed forces safe, and helps law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorist activity and serious and organised crime.

What do the initials CESG stand for?

The acronym CESG originally stood for Communications-Electronics Security Group. The expansion is no longer used but the initials CESG continue to represent the virtual organisation within GCHQ that acts as our security arm

What does CESG do?

CESG protects the vital interests of the UK by providing policy and assistance on the security of communications and electronic data, working in partnership with industry and academia. Our core customers are UK central government departments and agencies, and the Armed Forces. We also work with the wider public sector and essential services, including power and water, which form the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure.

Do you have sites all over the country?

GCHQ’s headquarters are in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. There are smaller sites in Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Manchester.

Why do so many people work at GCHQ?

GCHQ has to tackle a range of difficult challenges and the diversity of our staff reflects this. We have analysts to produce intelligence reports, specialist mathematicians, linguists, and a large number of technical staff. We believe we are one of the number one places for the very best technical and maths specialists in the UK to work.

Why does GCHQ need to be so secretive?

The threats we face are devised in secret so the methods used to combat them must also be developed in secret. Failing to do so could place the lives of UK citizens at home and abroad in increased danger.

Why does GCHQ neither confirm nor deny media reports?

GCHQ does not comment on the accuracy of reports of intelligence operations or capabilities. To do so would give vital information to terrorists, criminals and foreign intelligence services.

Can I visit GCHQ?

For security reasons, GCHQ does not offer public tours. You can, however, read more about what it’s like here, and see some pictures of what it looks like inside our building, on our ‘Who we are’ pages.

Would Director GCHQ like to speak at my event? 

The Director is a man in high demand; he receives many invitations to speak at a variety of public events. Unfortunately, due to diary limitations, he is not able to accept the majority of the interesting offers that come in.

Why does GCHQ have a website?

Yes we are a secret intelligence agency, but we are committed to being as open as we can be, in line with the Government’s openness policy. We have had a website since 1997 and strive to publish as much information as possible without compromising security.

 

Our Partners

Do you work with MI5 and MI6?

GCHQ has a long history of co-operation with the Security Service (also known as MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). These agencies work together to give ministers and government departments insight to help them shape national policies to keep the UK safe.

What is the difference between all of the intelligence services; MI5, MI6 and GCHQ?

Ultimately, we all work to protect the UK, its citizens, and interests at home and abroad, against a variety of threats. Where GCHQ specialises in gaining intelligence from communications, MI5 and MI6 both deal with human intelligence. MI5 focuses their efforts within the UK and MI6 focuses on gathering intelligence outside the UK.

Do you work with foreign organisations?

GCHQ has a long history of working with partners in other countries. Communications and the threats we face are global, and we cannot work in isolation.

Do you work with the NSA?

Our relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA), the US equivalent of GCHQ, is particularly strong. It dates back to agreements signed at the end of the World War II and remains essential to the security of both nations. It has stopped many terrorist plots and has saved many lives at home and abroad.

Does GCHQ ask foreign organisations to do things that would be illegal under UK law?

No. Our foreign relationships are built on the policy that no partner ever asks another to do something that they themselves cannot lawfully do. Procedures are in place to ensure that GCHQ’s work is compliant with domestic law, particularly its Human Rights obligations.

 

Legalities

Does GCHQ have access to all communications made by computers and phones everywhere?

We have access to only a tiny percentage of global communications traffic. Communications cannot be viewed or examined by an analyst other than in strictly controlled circumstances.

Does GCHQ listen to all phone calls and read all email?

No. GCHQ's primary focus is on threats to the UK. Most of these threats come from overseas so that’s where we concentrate. When a lead we are investigating brings us to a person in the UK, before seeking to intercept their communications we need to put together a case to justify such action and have an appropriate authorisation (usually a warrant) signed off. To listen to all phone calls and read all emails would be unjustified and disproportionate, as well as physically impossible. The Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Anthony May, investigated whether GCHQ engaged in random mass intrusion into the private affairs of law-abiding citizens.

Does GCHQ or HMG use legally privileged material to gain an unfair advantage in legal cases?

Absolutely not. Under no circumstances would it be proper for any public authority to use legally privileged communications in order to gain an unfair advantage in litigation. Nowhere else in the world are the intelligence and security agencies subject to such strict, in-built tests of necessity and proportionality and robust, independent oversight.

For what reasons can GCHQ look at the data it holds?

We are authorised to do properly focused searches to help further investigations relating to national security, and serious and organised crime. We may also investigate matters relating to safeguarding the economic security of the UK, but any work for this purpose must have a direct link to UK national security.

How can I find out more about the ‘legal framework’ within which GCHQ operates?

GCHQ is subject to rigorous legal oversight, and complies with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Analysts only ever see the data that matches their properly authorised and legally compliant search terms. Data we collect is held in secure automated systems for a limited period of time and can only be accessed by properly qualified and trained personnel. Analysts must be able to justify their detective work by proving all searches are legal, necessary and proportionate. All justifications are stored, our systems are audited and we have checks in place to review usage.

How does GCHQ safeguard the data it collects?

Analysts only ever see the data that matches their properly authorised and legally compliant search terms. Data we collect is held in secure automated systems for a limited period of time and can only be accessed by properly qualified and trained personnel. Analysts must be able to justify their detective work by proving all searches are legal, necessary and proportionate. All justifications are stored, our systems are audited and we have checks in place to review usage.

Isn't the interception of legally privileged information prohibited?

No, there is no absolute bar on the interception of legally privileged communications: for example if a lawyer was involved in terrorism or paedophilia his communications may need to be examined, even if that means the incidental interception of legally privileged communications.  However, legally privileged material is particularly sensitive.  For that reason, robust safeguards are set out in the statutory code of practice on the interception of communications.

So what is GCHQ's practice?

GCHQ's work to track down terrorists and identify threats to the UK may require it to examine confidential communications, such as those between lawyer and client. Such circumstances would be exceptional and rare, but should this need arise, GCHQ has in place internal policies (extracts of which have recently been disclosed) which ensure GCHQ complies with the requirements of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) Code of Practice. Strict tests of necessity and proportionality and robust safeguards would be applied. The process would also be overseen by the independent Interception of Communications Commissioner.

What else protects my privacy?

Decisions to sign off interception warrants are reviewed by an Independent Commissioner who is required by law to be, or have been, a very senior judge. Add to this scrutiny by the Intelligence Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) and a complaints mechanism in the form of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) and you have one of the strongest systems of democratic accountability for secret intelligence in the world.

What is a warrant?

A warrant is a legal authorisation that can only be issued by, or with the express approval of, a Secretary of State.

What is taken into consideration in authorising a warrant?

Any activity authorised under a warrant must be necessary, e.g. for national security, and proportionate. When considering whether to issue a warrant, great care is taken to balance individual privacy with the need to keep the nation safe, detect and prevent serious crime and to protect the economic security of the UK.

Why does GCHQ not collect just the data belonging to terrorists, criminals or others who wish the UK harm?

Unfortunately, we are rarely given the full name and contact details of those who pose a threat to the UK and there is no distinct method of communication that is only used by, for example, terrorists or serious criminals that sets them apart from everybody else just living their lives. To be able to do our jobs under these circumstances, we must do some detective work to piece the picture together. However, need some pieces of the jigsaw (ie some data) to start with. We use carefully focused searches to draw out only what is relevant; the overwhelming majority of data collected by GCHQ is never seen by an analyst before it is discarded.

 

Cyber

What is cyber and why does GCHQ care about it?

Cyber encompasses all online activity. The Government published the National Cyber Security Strategy in November 2011 outlining how the Internet has changed our lives and the Government’s approach to keeping the UK safe and prosperous online. GCHQ plays an important part in turning this strategy into reality, keeping the UK safe in a digital world.

What internet based threats are GCHQ dealing with?

Just as we all use the internet to communicate, shop and learn; terrorists, foreign states and criminals can use the internet in the same way but for malicious purposes. This can range from planning illegal acts, to spreading extremist material, or manipulating the control systems of electricity networks, telecoms and transport.

How is GCHQ addressing these Internet-based threats?

GCHQ identifies internet activity targeting UK industry and individuals, and gathers intelligence to understand these threats. This enables us to offer security advice so that the UK can live and work online with confidence.

Can GCHQ help me protect my business or my family from cyber threats?

GCHQ cannot provide advice on an individual basis to companies or members of the public. However, we do support a number of initiatives which will help enable people to take action to protect themselves online. See HMG’s 10 steps to cyber security or visit Cyber Street for more info.

 

Careers

I’d like to work for GCHQ, how do I go about applying?

To check out what vacancies are currently available, please visit our careers website.

I’m having problems making an application for a job with GCHQ, who should I contact?

If you have any problems regarding the submission of an application, please email careers@recruitmentteam.org.uk.

Can I do work experience at GCHQ?

Unfortunately due to the nature of our work, we do not offer work experience at GCHQ. However if you are considering your career after secondary school or university, you may be interested in our Summer School and Apprenticeship schemes - see our careers website for more information on the requirements and how to apply.

 

And finally

Does GCHQ only recruit mathematicians?

No, GCHQ does recruit a number of specialists (e.g. mathematicians or linguists) but we also recruit a wide range of individuals with diverse skills. Our business thrives through bringing different minds together to tackle problems. GCHQ values different thinking, and looks for people with the right mindset.

GCHQ has rabbits running around the garden in the middle of their building

Sadly no, we don’t have rabbits in our garden. The only wildlife we have here are ladybirds, sparrows and pigeons. 

GCHQ has a network of underground tunnels beneath Cheltenham so staff can move around the town without getting stuck in traffic

Ah, if only this was true but it’s not. We have to sit in the queues like everyone else.