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U of C professor takes a look Behind the Enigma with first authorized history of Britain's secret cyber-intelligence agency

When University of Calgary history professor John Ferris got his first look at the mountains of information available to him at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), he was overcome with two emotions: exhilaration and fear.

As the writer of the first authorized history of Britain’s secretive cyber-intelligence agency, Ferris was given unprecedented access to previously classified documents stored at the headquarters of the GCHQ. For an academic who had been exploring the history of signal intelligence, or Sigint, for the past 40 years, this offered kid-in-a-candy-store levels of excitement.

But fear began to creep in when he realized the sheer volume of material he now had access to.

“The frightening side was that it was dumped on me all at once,” says Ferris. “I had a relatively short timeframe to write it. I had to learn all of these things which are absolutely new. In technical terms, there were all sorts of things I had to learn. So the result is that it was really emotionally quite stressful as well as giving me a great deal of fun.”

Ferris figures he spent roughly a year on and off in the basement of GCHQ’s headquarters in Cheltenham — nicknamed the “Doughnut” due to its unique architecture — doing research, as well as spending countless hours at home in Calgary sifting through material made available to him online.

So it’s not surprising that the resulting book, Behind the Enigma, is an intimidating 825-page tome. It begins with the 1844 origins of modern British signal intelligence, which is the collection of intelligence through the interception of signals and communications. From there, it takes readers through the formation of the GCHQ in the First World War, to its famed achievements in codebreaking intercepted Nazi messages at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, to its activities gathering intelligence during the Falklands conflict and the Cold War, to its current role battling terrorism and online crime.

In the years he spent working on the book, the scope quickly evolved to cover a much broader history. Initially, the idea was to trace the history of GCHQ up until the end of the Cold War, with certain restrictions being put on post-Second World War diplomatic messages or revelations of methods still in use. But it was later agreed that Behind the Enigma should cover its activities right up to the present day, which opens up broader questions about modern intelligence gathering and mass surveillance.

“What is going on with Sigint in the world today is really important and different from what it is in the Cold War,” Ferris says. “So to help British readers, the British public, understand what GCHQ does, they gave me more material about the post-Cold War era and I wrote up until 2020. Sigint goes from being a state-to-state issue and goes to one involving states and societies. It used to be only governments had signals-intelligence capabilities, now millions of entities have some kind of Sigint capability. Phishing is a kind of very primitive Sigint. I would say we are talking about hundreds of thousands of organized cybercriminals who have quite sophisticated Sigint capabilities. Suddenly, it’s the duty of GCHQ, and also of, say, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment, to help protect its citizens and public from direct attacks by foreign Sigint agencies, whether they are government or private.”

After more than 100 years of operating in the shadows, this newfound openness by the GCHQ is no doubt at least partially due to a need to explain its operations to a public that has become increasingly wary about mass surveillance done by government agencies. You would be hard-pressed to find any review of Behind the Enigma that does not mention American whistleblower Edward Snowden. He leaked classified information from the National Security Agency, GCHQ’s Five Eyes American partner. Snowden is certainly included in the book, but he takes up only a fraction of the 800-plus pages.

Ferris says there is a misconception about agencies collecting citizens’ data as part of mass surveillance. While the bulk collection of data is considered by some to be unavoidable for any state conducting signals intelligence, most agencies have to use their limited resources to examine communications from actual threats such as terrorists or spies, he says.

“On a given day, if the Five Eyes were to temporarily collect five billion bits of telecommunications, that sounds like a lot,” Ferris says. “But the absolute number of communications that they can process in any way will be in the tens of thousands probably. And the number of those messages which they can actually read would be in the low tens of thousands. In the end, the real point is they don’t have enough people to go after communications of people like you or I, because we don’t matter. They barely have enough ability to handle terrorists, cybercriminals, foreign governments, foreign intelligence agencies.

“On the one hand, I agree that we absolutely need to maintain legal control to ensure these agencies don’t do things which we believe or wrong. But I’m not particularly worried about Five Eyes Sigint going after the communications of Five Eyes citizens illegally.”

Behind the Enigma is now available.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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