Surrounded by a barbed wire fence, the Government Communications Headquarters site in Scarborough has for decades played a vital role in protecting the country and its armed forces.
Though intelligence gathering has taken place in the seaside town since the year the First World War broke out – and GCHQ Scarborough is believed to be the longest continuously-serving site for signals intelligence (intercepting and interpreting messages) in the world – more than a century later, today’s base is shrouded in mystery, with many still unaware of its existence.
But with a focus on outreach and a brand new work experience scheme, it is hoped that will start to change. It was the latter that prompted The Yorkshire Post to be given exclusive access to the site during a recent visit.
On approach, a road sign for GCHQ Scarborough directs motorists off Racecourse Road – the base sits on what was once the town’s racecourse – and shortly after passing a caravan park, the building comes into view.
On arrival, phones (not permitted) are put in lockers, passports are examined for ID checks and a lanyard and security code are presented to gain entry.
Computers are switched to blank screens in operational rooms during a tour of the site – though an employee canteen and department tuck shop are refreshing reminders of an office life to which most can relate.
“We are just ordinary people,” says head of station Sheila – only first names are given on introductions to protect identities. “We do a really interesting job but there’s nothing special about us.”
The secrecy and safeguarding is not unexpected, given the nature of the work. One of three UK intelligence and security agencies, GCHQ specialises in gaining intelligence from communications to help keep deployed forces safe and support law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorist activity and serious crime.
Like MI5 and MI6, which deal with human intelligence within and outside of the UK respectively, the organisation aims to protect the UK and its citizens from a variety of threats.
The full spectrum of operations are represented at Scarborough, where more than 200 people work, Sheila explains. It means the whole organisation could be run from Yorkshire should anything happen to its headquarters in Cheltenham.
The base includes an event management centre, which works around the clock on high priority missions. “The big thing for our organisation is the internet age,” says Sheila, who joined GCHQ 20 years ago as a vetting officer, looking at the backgrounds of potential employees.
Previously people communicated by letter or telephone, but now there is a whole range of media that needs examining. “It is much more difficult being an intelligence analyst now than it was 20 years ago.”
Upskilling staff is key to keeping up with the fast pace of technological change and responding to new threats, she says.
As well as cyber-security and network defence, serious crime including human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and drug smuggling is high on GCHQ Scarborough’s list of priorities.
“Our priorities are dictated by central Government and they change in relation to world events,” Sheila explains. “We have got to be really flexible in what we do. In the political arena it is constantly changing,” she adds, though she keeps the current focus tightly under wraps.
“We can’t tell our family and friends exactly what we do,” she says. “You will maybe see something on the television and you may have been involved in it but you can’t say.”
It seems remarkable that an organisation so secretive can run a work experience scheme with schoolchildren. But earlier this year, GCHQ Scarborough hosted the first ever week-long placement for a group of eight 15 to 17-year-olds from Scarborough TEC college and secondary schools in the town.
Robert, Tyler and Charlie were among those who took part in the scheme, which included a look at fixing IT faults and the creation of an interactive game.
“What we did was really informative and fun, including learning different skill sets, but being able to talk to people that actually do this and live and breathe GCHQ was probably my greatest highlight,” says Robert.
“It was a big opportunity,” says Tyler, grateful for the chance to learn about what goes on at the site.
“It was a privilege to step onto Government ground that no one else has access to,” Charlie agrees. He says the experience has strengthened his desire to apply for a role in the organisation; in fact, all three are now considering careers there.
“We do need fresh blood,” says Andy, who oversees outreach for the station. “We need young people to come in and be enthusiastic and spread the word that it is interesting, challenging, inclusive and there is lots of variety.”
The aim of much of the outreach work, carried out voluntarily by staff, is to recruit a diverse workforce – a range of ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds with skills varying from technical to analytical.
“(Young people) have no fear of exploring the cyber toys and gadgets... they have grown up online. It is second nature to them,” Andy says.
The work experience scheme ran from the site’s training and development facility – the Alan Turing Training and Innovation Centre (ATTIC).
The facility opened in 2016 alongside the GCHQ on-site ‘Y Station Museum’, which charts the town’s intelligence history. The beginnings date to 1912, when the Royal Navy established a Wireless Telegraphy Station, at Sandybed Lane; signals intelligence began there two years later.
The station monitored the German High Seas Fleet. At the start of the Second World War, it intercepted German Naval communications and in 1941 played a key role in the location and destruction of German battleship Bismarck.
In 1943, it relocated to its current site, and later became the main station for the interception of Russian naval traffic. In 1965, the site transferred to GCHQ ownership and nine years later operations transferred from a half-buried bomb-proof bunker on the site to the present building.
To some locals, it is still known as ‘the wireless station’ – and for several families, it has provided employment through generations.
Looking to the future, the vision is for Scarborough to become a ‘northern recruitment and training hub’ for the organisation, whilst plans are in place for a new GCHQ site to open in Manchester next year.
“It is very different to Scarborough but it is complementary,” says Simon, Scarborough’s former head of station who is now the head of northern transformation. His role also includes looking at how the organisation can work closer with academics and businesses in the industry.
“From a recruitment and retention point of view, it gives people choices. It gives the opportunity to start a career in the North for GCHQ at whatever stage, straight out of university, as an apprentice straight out of sixth-form, mid-career, all of those things.
“It gives people different options – a city centre lifestyle or a country and coast lifestyle. There is the possibility of a lifelong career and a wide range of jobs.
“We can’t compare with the private sector in terms of salary because we are a Government department,” Sheila admits. “What we do sell the business on is the really interesting work people can be involved in.”