A couple years back, GCHQ held its yearly sports fest on Wednesday, 15 June at London’s Civil Service Sports Club. A gender-friendly, six-a-side football match was the main event of the activity, with games kicking off at exactly 11 A.M..
The day was a cheerful experience for those normally ensconced in the agency’s unique doughnut-shaped command centre in Cheltenham. Participants were given a six-page list of rules and regulations to ascertain that people played fair.
“Each team MUST field at least ONE lady player at all times,” the note said. “Proper footwear shall be worn. Crocs, sandals or flip-flops are not allowed. The wearing of shin-pads is REQUIRED.”
Among all the extremely confidential papers about GCHQ exposed by the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, this has to be one of the least delicate. But it provides a peek into the world of the 6,100 people packed into the open-plan and underground GCHQ offices; that there is a sports activity at all shows something about the agency which many people outside their world could not appreciate.
Last year, GCHQ also made trips to the Paris Disneyland, and its sailing club participated in an offshore regatta at Cowes. The agency also has a chess club, regular pub quiz nights, cake bazaars and an in-house puzzle newsletter named Kryptos. A member of Stonewall beginning last year, GCHQ has its own Pride group for employees who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
There is also a paranormal group that describes itself as “GCHQ’s ghost-hunting group”. It is open to staff and their partners either “sceptics or believers” who want to explore “supposedly haunted properties”.
Employees reckon their age on the internal directory, “GCWiki”, by their “internet age”, a gage of how long they have been experts on the web.
They meet friends during yearly family open-days, or through messages on the agency’s own version of MySpace, aptly titles SpySpace.
Colleagues are bound to meet others cut from the same fabric. The agency’s 2010/11 recruitment guide states that GCHQ hires top-calibre technologists and mathematicians familiar with the intricate algorithms that fuel the Internet. But it has space for a few accountants and librarians. No vacancies available for classicists, however.
No one at Cheltenham is significantly well compensated, at least, in comparison with the private sector – a junior analyst might earn £25,000. “We can provide a fantastic mission; but we cannot shell out private-sector-level salaries,” one briefing note warned.