The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) strives to maintain the security of the United Kingdom, through its intelligence work in collaboration with a number of partner agencies such as the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and MI5. GCHQ acts in accordance with UK law, and its functions are set out in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (ISA).
GCHQ is primarily a foreign-focused intelligence agency, with a limited signals intelligence role. Further insight into its operations is provided on the GCHQ website, demonstrating how it protects UK interests, intercepts communications and collaborates with global partners in international criminal investigations.
How does the GCHQ protect UK communications?
GCHQ has a role providing advice and assistance to certain UK bodies for the protection of communications in the UK. They also have a role in assisting the public sector in securing their own communications.
Interception of communications operations
Interception of communications operations are authorised under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA). Warrants authorising interception can only be issued by a Secretary of State, and must be approved by an independent Judicial Commissioner from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office.
Before an interception warrant can be issued, the Secretary of State must believe that a warrant is necessary on certain, limited grounds. These grounds are that interception is necessary:
- In the interests of national security; or
- In the interests of the economic well-being of the UK; or
- In support of the prevention or detection of serious crime
IPA also requires safeguards to be in place to limit the use of intercepted material and related communications data.
How does the GCHQ combat international crime?
As threats have become increasingly global, the GCHQ has established a range of international partnerships to facilitate the exchange of intelligence, expertise and regional perspectives.
Through these partnerships the GCHQ aims to combat a range of threats to the UK including terrorism, cyber-attacks and serious crime, while also sharing their own expertise and intelligence to better equip international partners to combat threats in their regions.
The role of GCHQ in Government
The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) produces intelligence assessments for UK Government ministers, and sets priorities for intelligence-gathering by UK intelligence agencies. The JIC draws its membership from senior officials in a range of departments, including heads of the GCHQ.
The National Security Council (NSC) considers matters relating to a number of areas including National Security, Foreign Policy, Defence, International Relations and Development. In addition to permanent NSC members which include the Prime Minister and Attorney General, non-members (including GCHQ heads) may be invited depending on the topic being discussed.
Who oversees the work of the GCHQ?
GCHQ is overseen by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), a cross-party committee of MPs and Lords that oversees the work of the UK’s Intelligence Services.
GCHQ is also overseen by the independent Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office which provides judicial oversight on the use of investigatory powers.
Additionally, complaints by the public against GCHQ are investigated by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).