Inside a secret complex manufacturing high-tech equipment for British spies

  • Written by Gordon Colella
  • BBC News Security Correspondent

Hidden behind five pieces of barbed wire in a park on the outskirts of Milton Keynes is no ordinary manufacturing plant. In its 85-year history, it has never opened its doors to the media.

Her Majesty’s Government Communications Center (HMGCC) in Hanslope Park produces what appear to be everyday objects.

But this is far from the whole story, including history about codebreaker Alan Turing, sealed rooms, and comparisons to top-secret gadgets from James Bond movies.

Why is security so strict? These items are made for British spies and help hide their work.

Because the BBC has exclusive access to its vast premises, our phones must be handed over and security personnel must accompany us at all times.

We get a glimpse, but not much more, of what’s going on under the hood as HMGCC looks to forge new partnerships to get an edge in the spy game.

“We’ve made it very difficult for people to connect with us, but throughout our history it’s been a really good way of working,” CEO George Williamson explains.

But he says it’s time for a change, even if it feels “weird.”

It looks like an industrial park, with many anonymous buildings.

Engineers, physicists, chemists, designers, coders, and other professionals work on what is vaguely described as a “mixture of artistry and engineering.”

image caption,

Security at Hanslope Park is tight.

Some areas require you to wear anti-static clothing, while others feature an amazing variety of machines. That includes manufacturing electronic circuit boards, laser cutters, and 3D printers (labeled as Vader, Luke, and Leia by the dozen in homage to Star Wars).

But what exactly are machine creations used for? Part of the problem is that despite my best efforts, no one is saying anything. That’s because the devices coming out of the other end are highly classified.

But we can take a cue from the past. HMGCC was founded on the eve of World War II when European spies and diplomats needed to secretly and securely communicate with Britain.

This made it possible to create a secret radio system that could be smuggled into diplomatic pouches. Some of these were used when German forces invaded Poland in 1939 to inform officials fleeing Warsaw of what was happening.

image source, Getty Images

image caption,

Alan Turing lived and worked in Hanslope Park during World War II.

By the start of the war, this had evolved into the production of small radios that could be given to MI6 agents parachuting behind enemy lines in occupied Europe to send information back.

During the war, Turing lived and worked in Hanslope Park. Best known for breaking Nazi codes at nearby Bletchley Park, he worked at HMGCC to develop a device that could provide voice encryption.

Existing systems used by wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt weighed 50 tons. Turing’s prototype, Delilah, superimposed noise from a record turntable onto audio. It was portable, ahead of its time, and serves as another clue to what is being built there today.

modern spy

“I think we could go straight back in time to what was happening there 70 or 80 years ago,” Turing’s nephew, Sir Dermot Turing, told the BBC.

“The need for secure communications has not gone away.”

So how does this relate to the modern world? These days, undercover agents operating in so-called “denial zones” such as Russia and Iran need to communicate.

HMGCC would not comment, but other sources say modern spies rely on things like covert burst transmitters. These can appear like normal objects and transmit information in a fraction of a second. I imagine that’s what’s being made here, but no one wants to say.

image caption,

This car radio speaker is more than meets the eye

Another object I showed provides further clues as to what the HMGCC does.

This is a car radio speaker made in the 1930s. A secret transmitter is hidden on the back.

Communication is also part of the job. But it appears that wiretaps and tracking devices are also hidden, but again, officials remain extremely tight-lipped when I ask.

“For the better part of 85 years, we have developed secure communications systems that enable people in difficult, dangerous and remote locations to secretly communicate to the UK,” Mr Williamson said.

“We may assist some of our national security agencies with some of their investigative work that produces technology that is useful for activities such as surveillance.”

One of HMGCC’s customers is MI5, which may need to secretly listen to suspects in their homes in the UK or track suspects in their vehicles.

This could include disguising the eavesdropping device as an everyday object that no one would notice. What that is is another thing that no one wants to discuss.

image caption,

Stargate with gray spikes makes you feel like you’re in a medieval torture chamber

It’s tempting to say that all of this is like James Bond’s Q branch. Insiders claim this comparison is completely incorrect. This may be because they don’t manufacture explosives or cars equipped with rocket launchers, but it’s hard to be completely sure.

In a room with a rubber floor, two staff members test electrical equipment to make sure it doesn’t give anyone an unintended electric shock. Elsewhere, items made here are tested in extreme hot and cold environments to ensure they can be sent and received.

One of the strange places I was guided to was an airtight container lined with small gray foam spikes called the Stargate. Being locked up feels like a modern version of a medieval torture chamber.

There is a turntable in the room that moves the devices, and sensors test what patterns a particular communication device emits.

This may help you know how likely you are to be discovered by a hostile nation, and perhaps know how to identify devices being used by a hostile nation within your territory. It may also be helpful.

image caption,

George Williamson hopes collaboration will lead to ‘something special’

Within fairly tight constraints, HMGCC opens its doors because it knows new technologies that could be critical to its mission are being developed by small start-ups and academia.

This technology may be relevant in areas far from national security, but it may have applications that its developers are unaware of.

Collaboration was previously impossible due to strict security, but now it is expected to be possible.

“The idea is that we can put our engineers and their great ideas in the same room with people from industry and academia,” Williamson says.

“It’s those magical moments when different ideas come together that create something truly special.”

But how that technology is ultimately used is likely to remain secret, like almost everything else on this site.

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