At the outbreak of WWII, GCHQ's forerunner GC&CS created cryptic crosswords, hidden codes and other brain-teasers designed to assess the aptitude of potential recruits to Bletchley Park's code-breaking team. This tradition continues today. Jeremy Fleming, head of GCHQ's signals intelligence hub, comes up with a festive brain-twister every year, a puzzle designed to test the world’s brightest hackers, engineering geniuses and cryptology masterminds.
The card is sent to GCHQ’s colleagues around the world and also released to the public via Twitter and Instagram. But who is the mastermind cryptologist behind the world’s most difficult puzzles?
A man identified only as ‘Colin’ claims the title of GCHQ 'chief puzzler' but it is an unofficial accolade: “I do have a day job,” Colin told the BBC. “But I also have a role in looking after the many puzzles we’ve produced over the years.”
The annual puzzle is a popular pastime in addition to the brain-teasers GCHQ releases each week.
The 2020 card shows a bauble with a circuit board design. One particular pattern stands out. Inside the card, nine sequences of letters must be solved, and the solution is found by relating the answers to the pattern on the front of the card. GCHQ reveals all on Twitterat the end of each year but Colin offered a tantalising clue to solve the seventh sequence of letters: it references a Christmas song.
GCHQ sells puzzle books to raise money for charity but they are also a recruitment tool: “It is a way of attracting to GCHQ the kind of problem solvers that we want in the department - the lateral thinking and ingenuity that’s needed to solve our puzzles,” Colin said.
The same type of problem-solving skills required for code-breaking also apply to data analysis, he added.
A few years ago, an amateur cryptologist won a GCHQ contest for solving a particularly difficult puzzle set out in a national newspaper, Colin recalled: “The winner of that did subsequently join the department and is now one of the people that assists in setting puzzles.”
GCHQ created cryptic crosswords, hidden codes and other brain-teasers to assess the aptitude of potential WWII code-breakers who worked out of Bletchley Park.
Rejuvenated by new blood including Alan Turing, GCHQ has since become an international agency in partnership with the US and Commonwealth countries.