Declassified UK has exclusively revealed Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s largest intelligence agency, has gained intimate access to at least 22,000 primary and secondary school children in dozens of UK schools, and the organisation may even be spying on children.
Furthermore, GCHQ’s Cyber Schools Hub (CSH) programme, also known as CyberFirst, is said to be disseminating pro-agency propaganda to school children - the programme has also illicitly expanded into 10 primary schools since launch in 2018, with students aged 4 - 11. While programme literature suggests the project covers 23 schools, Declassified has found nearly double this figure are actually involved.
Declassified has also seen evidence a “code club” set up at one primary school is staffed entirely by GCHQ officers. The intelligence agency is further trying to gain access to school children by providing technology to local libraries, while its “recruitment teams” have been mobilised to deal with enquiries from schools involved in the programme.
— Mark Curtis (@markcurtis30) June 2, 2020
GCHQ and local police are said to have launched a “joint tag team event” at one school to gain access to a pupil who’d been reported to authorities by his school for being “very talented”, to the extent “teachers were worried [they] may be about to cross the line with [their] online cyber activities”.
The majority of Britain’s the £2.48 billion intelligence services budget taken by GCHQ, which has twice the number of personnel of domestic spy agency MI5 and foreign intelligence service MI6 combined.
Both GCHQ and schools involved in the programme have cited national security exemptions to block requests for further information.
Jen Persson, director of Defend Digital Me, an organisation defending children’s right to privacy, told Declassified GCHQ’s recruitment is a classic “drip-feed” strategy, “developed over time”.
“Children are vulnerable as they develop into adulthood, and there is regulation in other areas, to protect them from undue adult influence, like online advertising – yet it sounds like spies can walk into schools whenever they want with no transparency or independent oversight,” she said.
Files leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 showed GCHQ had been secretly intercepting, processing and storing data concerning millions of people’s private communications, including people of no intelligence interest in a programme dubbed Tempora. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled UK laws enabling such mass surveillance were unlawful, violating rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
It appears parents are not aware of the true extent of GCHQ’s activities, or its role in the CSH programme. When Declassified asked the NCSC what information is given to parents about the programme, the agency replied that it had “no contact” with them, and “what teachers/schools share with parents is done independently of NCSC”.