DRIVING INTO CHELTENHAM from the west, it is hard to miss the offices of Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s surveillance agency. The large, doughnut-shaped building sits behind high-perimeter fencing with barbed wire and many levels of security. The facility – used to eavesdrop on global emails and phone calls – is located on the edge of the sleepy Gloucestershire town, which feels like an incongruous location for one of the world’s most aggressive spy agencies.
Cheltenham has a population of just 117,000 people, and GCHQ’s presence has turned the area into one of Europe’s central hubs for companies working in the fields of cybersecurity and surveillance. GCHQ says it employs almost 6,000 people in Cheltenham and at some smaller bases around the U.K., although the agency has in recent years secretly expanded its workforce, reportedly employing thousands more staff.