The “brilliant minds” of the GCHQ security agency are tackling the challenges presented by rapid technology change, its boss has said.
Speaking 100 years since Government Communications Headquarters was formed, director Jeremy Fleming described society as being in a “period of accelerated change”.
He said technological advances are leaving the spy agency needing to alter the way it works.
GCHQ, which rarely speaks publicly about its work but has tried to become less secretive in recent years, is marking its centenary with a series of events including an exhibition at the Science Museum in London.
At an event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, attended by GCHQ staff past and present, Mr Fleming said: “We all know we’re living through a period of accelerated technology change, which comes with unique challenges but also huge advantages.
“These mean that for GCHQ to continue to prosper – and particularly to retain our licence to operate – we have to change too.
“This is not a new thing for us. Throughout our history brilliant minds have kept us ahead of the curve.”
Mr Fleming, speaking on Friday, also described the Five Eyes intelligence group – made up of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, which will mark its 75th anniversary in 2021 – as an “extraordinary partnership”.
He added it played a “pivotal role in global security and stability, and it’s as strong today as it’s ever been”.
Mr Fleming spoke after GCHQ revealed the locations of five formerly secret sites it had been working from during the Second World War and the Cold War – on a farm, in a manor on the cliffs in Dover, an office block in Mayfair and sites in Derbyshire and north Yorkshire.
GCHQ was set up on November 1 1919 as a peacetime “cryptanalytic” unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b).
During the Second World War, personnel moved to Bletchley Park, where they decrypted German messages, most famously by breaking the Enigma code.
The agency’s best-known former member of staff was Alan Turing, the wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science who had a “fearless approach to daunting problems”.
Its existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1983.
Working alongside MI5 and MI6, over the years GCHQ has looked to tackle serious cyber, terrorist, criminal, and state threats and attacks, including investigating the Novichok poisoning in March last year.
Mr Fleming said: “I can’t predict what GCHQ will look like in 100 years’ time, any more than if someone had asked Alistair Denniston back in 1919 to imagine the organisation I head up today.
“Who we are continues to be shaped by the changing threats and technology around us.
“But one thing’s for certain, in the future we will continue to face enormous complexity but that will provide us with enormous opportunity. ”
He added: “Of course, things are hugely different to the situation in 1919.
“Our values and especially our determination to keep the country safe, remains the same today.”
Mr Fleming praised the “amazing men and women” who would work “day and night” to keep the UK safe.
He added while GCHQ had to keep its ability to “operate in secret”, “today’s world and our work now demands a more open and transparent”.
In 2016, GCHQ became the first of the country’s spy agencies on Twitter and has since joined Instagram.