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.
People in the area are now talking of a cyber “corridor” that stretches for 50 miles from Malvern, just north of Cheltenham, all the way to Bristol, where the Ministry of Defence has its equipment and support headquarters at Abbey Wood. Many quaint English towns, known for their farming and country pubs, have seen an influx of companies dealing in cybersecurity and electronic spying. Even office space on former farms is being used for this burgeoning industry.
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Chris Dunning-Walton, the founder of a nonprofit called Cyber Cheltenham, or Cynam, organizes quarterly events in the town attended by politicians and entrepreneurs. “Historically, there has been a need for the companies that are working here to be very off the radar with their relationships with GCHQ and to some extent, that does exist,” says Dunning-Walton. But since Edward Snowden leaked information in 2013 about GCHQ’s sweeping surveillance activities, the agency has been forced to come out of the shadows and embrace greater transparency. One consequence of this, according to Dunning-Walton, is that GCHQ is now more open to partnering with private companies, which has helped fuel the cyber industry around the Cheltenham area.
Northrop Grumman, the world’s fifth-largest arms manufacturer, has located its European cyber and intelligence operations in Cheltenham, where it has two offices in the center of the town. In the nearby city of Gloucester, a 20-minute drive west of Cheltenham, Raytheon, the world’s third-largest arms company, in 2015 opened a
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