Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Alan Turing’

GCHQ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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LGBT History Month

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd February, 2019

Alan TuringFebruary is LGBT History Month in the UK, providing an opportunity to showcase the contribution made to society by LGBT people, ranging from one of the fathers of modern computer technology and artificial intelligence (AI), Alan Turing, to the playwright and wit, Noel Coward. Given my own professional and personal interests I inevitably hold especially dear those who made a big contribution to politics and the Arts, several of whom I shall be celebrating during the course of the month. A great tribute is deserved for Peter Tatchell, who for decades has campaigned tirelessly for human rights and equality, and those who were instrumental in getting Equal Marriage put on the UK statute books by the 2010-2015 Coalition Government, not least Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone. History Month events are already occupying a significant place in my diary. Last night I was at a dinner for the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and today I’ll be attending a lunch put on by the Oscar Wilde Society.

Noel CowardOscar Wilde has posthumously played an important role in my own writing life, as I have produced three books about the Irish playwright and his circle. I am currently working my way through Matthew Sturgis’s monumental new biography, Oscar, which is full of previously unknown details, including a very detailed account of Wilde’s American lecture tours. It is often overlooked just how important Oscar Wilde was as a social reformer, the grey clouds of his trials and imprisonment obscuring his progressive agenda, expressed directly in a number of essays and indirectly through his plays. For me, he represents the clearest example of living out the life philosophy of discovering who you are and then proudly being that person. That was a very brave position to take in the late Victorian period.

9326E15F-E174-4CA8-A6F2-71AACBE68C7CDuring LGBT History Month we can mark new milestones in the campaign for equality, such as Angola’s recent decriminalisation of same-sex relationships, while also noting with concern backward steps, such as the election of the homophobic Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. LGBT people are still the subject of discrimination and abuse in several parts of the world, one of the most egregious examples being in Chechnya. But the heroes and heroines of the past and the present can perhaps serve as an inspiration and even a consolation to those who still have to attain the full human rights that should be the norm for all people, irrespective of their sexuality.

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Rehabilitating Alan Turing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd September, 2009

Alan TuringI spent the past couple of days at Sherborne School in Dorset, briefing teachers who are going out to Qatar tomorrow to open a branch of Sherborne in Doha. As the Headmaster was showing us round the (English) school, I was delighted to hear him pay tribute to old boy Alan Turing, who was a key figure in cracking the Nazis’ enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, but later commited suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide, following his prosecution for gross indecency and his chemical castration. The man who even Time magazine once cited as among the 100 most important men in the 20th century has consequently never truly been accorded the public recognition he deserves in Britain — particularly when one considers how important he was in the development of modern computers. It is terrific that Sherborne School now portrays him as a hero to the boys, warts and all.

Meanwhile, thanks to the hard work of John Graham-Cumming, author of The Geek Atlas, an online petition to Gordon Brown (as Prime Minister) to ‘ap0logise for the persecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death.’ Well over 26,000 people have already signed and the petition is open for another four-and-a-half months. Oscar Wilde has long been accorded the stellar position he deserves in the British literary firmament. It would be fitting that Alan Turing achieves the same happy outcome in its scientific equivalent.

[Postscript 12 September: Gordon Brown has indeed now issued an elegant and sincere apology. Thank you, Number 10!]

Link: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/turing

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