The Blog

Knowing Me, Knowing You - GCHQ's First Month on Twitter

For decades, few people knew how the British Intelligence services worked. How did one even become a spy? Did it really involve a tap on the shoulder and a discreet conversation about Northern Ireland or the Soviet Union?

"Intelligence agencies such as GCHQ need to enter the public debate about privacy. I think we have a good story to tell." - Robert Hannigan, Director of GCHQ

Myths & legends

For decades, few people knew how the British Intelligence services worked. How did one even become a spy? Did it really involve a tap on the shoulder and a discreet conversation about Northern Ireland or the Soviet Union?

A vacuum of information led to many myths and legends, fuelled by James Bond films, stories of mysterious deaths and people's unchecked imaginations.

But then came the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance, resulting in a fierce debate about privacy, transparency and international law, which rumbles on in different ways.

Others, in effect, seized the story - and ran away with it.

Stung, British Intelligence has increasingly sought to regain control of its own reputation. Director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan, chief of MI6 Sir John Sawers and others have gone on the record to explain some of their thinking.

Adoration of the Shepherds

In one example of this new openness, GCHQ released a Christmas card with a cryptographic twist. It featured the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' by a pupil of Rembrandt and involved a brain-tease open to the public. Players could send their answers to GCHQ by email and stay informed of the winner.

The intention was obvious: look, we have fun with quizzes; we're not as bad as all that.

Hello, world

In the last month, however, GCHQ has opened up in a more significant way: it launched a Twitter account, the first of the British secret services to do so.

Its first tweet, Hello, world, contained a link to GCHQ's website, where a short announcement explained its desire "to reach out to the technical community and add our voice to social media conversations about technology, maths, cyber security, and other topics where we have a view." Noting the popularity of the Christmas card quiz, the statement also said the agency would continue with "puzzles...questions and codes to work your grey matter."

No polemics here

However, anyone expecting polemical engagement is in for disappointment. A cursory trawl through GCHQ's Twitter feed quickly shows its real purpose.

Tweets are tightly managed around a few key themes: the agency's history, its claims to diversity, job opportunities (Arabic and Russian language graduates are in particular high demand), technological innovation, and support for the British establishment (one recent tweet celebrating the Queen's birthday).

Liberals & patriots

In just a few days after its first tweet, GCHQ amassed 34k+ Twitter followers (its growth has stabilised since). Broadly speaking, followers fall into six groups: news media & journalists (probably hunting for stories), tech sites (ditto), other intelligence services (e.g. the CIA and NSA), privacy groups & NGOs (perhaps keen to see slip-ups), and what one might call liberals (of the anti-authoritarian kind) and patriots (flag, faith and family types).

In other words, the liberals and patriots are the only two significant groups of individuals rather than organisations. Both groups are typically male, young, urban and educated.

Even though GCHQ isn't on Facebook, it's interesting to see the results from a Facebook Audience Insights check on people interested in 'Edward Snowden', 'counter-terrorism', 'cyber security' and 'espionage'. Some 80% are male; 53% under the age of 44; and typical other interests include the military, government and technology.

Clearly, GCHQ has found a ready audience among social media users, who hold opposing views about authority and power, national defence and whistle-blowers.

It should be noted, however, that it hasn't explicitly acknowledged these people on Twitter, where it follows a mere 164 users: nearly all news media, universities and tech sites.

In contrast with GCHQ's surveillance work, on Twitter it seems far more interested in broadcasting its identity and attracting recruits, instead of open discussion.

Balance of power

Parliamentary select committee hearings, speeches and interviews - and now social media. British Intelligence's reputation management has been careful and considered.

If a Facebook page, YouTube channel or other social media activity is still to come, it seems unlikely it will lift the veil in a more dramatic way.

In the end, GCHQ will continue to know more about us than we do about it; whatever your opinion about that balance of power. Unless, that is, Snowden or others like him have more up their sleeve.