Behind the Headlines: Cracking the Christmas Code

Behind the Headlines: Cracking the Christmas Code

Pagefield General


What’s happened?

GCHQ have posted their Christmas cards for 2015. However, instead of a traditional picture of Santa or Rudolph, the official card features a complex grid-shading puzzle, where recipients have to uncover a secret image.

The card was issued by GCHQ director, Robert Hannigan, who wanted to “exercise the grey matter of participants over the holiday season.” Players are invited to submit their completed puzzles and answers (via email) by the 31st January and are also encouraged to make a donation to the NSPCC.

Why is it important?

This atypical Christmas card has served its purpose well as a PR stunt – generating significant conversation and buzz around GCHQ. It’s a far cry from the traditionally reactive or defensive headlines about spying on the nation, which GCHQ is usually linked to, particularly in the post-Snowden era.

However, this card is more than just a PR stunt. It’s a creative way for GCHQ to attract a new cadre of intelligence officers without recourse to the traditional job-board advertisement. The intelligence agency pulled a similar hiring trick last month, placing graffiti job adverts on the streets of Shoreditch in a bid to attract a new type of tech-savvy employee, dubbed by some in the media as the ‘hipster James Bond’.

This PR drive comes at a crucial time for the intelligence agency as it seeks to delicately balance public perception; on the one hand reassuring the public that it is on top of potential terror threats and on the other, satisfying that it is not infringing unduly on individual privacy.

What’s the reaction been?

The card and puzzle has no doubt achieved what it set out to do, gaining plenty of social media and news coverage. So much so that users temporarily crashed the GCHQ website trying to complete the puzzle online.

However, the stunt hasn’t come without criticism – which is to be expected, given the organisation’s tricky reputation. Simply reading the comments under this Guardian article shows that GCHQ will need to do a lot more to address negative perceptions concerning the surveillance of private communications.

Best headline?

Spooks set festive challenge for armchair codebreakers – The Times

What’s next?

It will be interesting to see who ends up completing the puzzle successfully and whether they could potentially be sitting at a permanent desk at GCHQ in 2016. Will the tactic have managed to attract those ‘Shoreditch hipsters’ who have been targeted in the past? Perhaps it will manage to shift perceptions for many of those “armchair codebreakers” looking for a festive challenge?

In the longer term it will be interesting to see whether this kind of stunt will be a recurring tactic as GCHQ seeks to open up and tread an ever more difficult line in public perception.