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GCHQ, the UK's Secretive Spy Agency, Now Has an Open-Source Github Account

It might come as a surprise that the agency has just launched its own public facing Github account, and released a new database tool for anyone to use.

Joseph Cox

Joseph Cox

GCHQ headquarters. Image: Ministry of Defence

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK's signals intelligence agency, is one of the most opaque institutions on the planet. So, it might come as a surprise that it has just launched its own public facing Github account, and released a new database tool for anyone to use.

"For the first time, GCHQ has contributed to the open source software development community by this week releasing, via Github, a graph database called Gaffer," a GCHQ spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.

Github is a platform that lets just about anyone host their code and documentation for their own projects, and allow others to contribute to them too. Users can publish their code to the world, or keep it limited to only select eyes.

GCHQ, it seems, has done the former. Its account can be accessed here, and at the time of writing is hosting one project.

"As a government department and technology organisation, GCHQ software developers and technologists aim to contribute to open source software projects," the spokesperson continued.

"Gaffer," according to the project's description, "makes it easy to store large-scale graphs in which the nodes and edges have statistics such as counts, histograms and sketches." In short, its a framework for creating large databases, to store and represent data.

The description also notes that "Gaffer2" is in development, which will apparently make a series of improvements.

"Gaffer2 is a project that aims to take the best parts of Gaffer, and resolve some of the above flaws, to create a more general purpose graph database system. This can be used for both large and small scale graphs, for graphs with properties that are summaries, or just static properties, and for many other use cases," the description reads.

GCHQ has been changing its PR tactics pretty drastically recently. In November, graffiti-style recruitment ads for the agency popped up all over East London, and in October, The Times was granted access to GCHQ's hub in Cheltenham.

This moves may seem an attempt to give the impression that GCHQ is an open, approachable sort of intelligence agency, but no one can ignore that it is behind some of the most invasive mass surveillance programs the world has ever seen.

As part of an operation called Tempora, GCHQ has tapped into the underwater cables that carry the world's internet traffic, and constantly sweeps up emails, Facebook posts, internet histories, calls and other data, and then shares that treasure trove with the NSA.

Regardless, according to GCHQ, Gaffer won't be the only project the agency posts to Github.

"Gaffer is expected to be the first of many contributions that GCHQ will make to open source software," the spokesperson said. "GCHQ hopes that Gaffer will be useful to others in the community, as well as helping its own technical staff as they continue to develop the software in the future."