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Meet the new authorized historian of Britain's communications intelligence agency

History prof John Ferris has been named the “authorized historian” in chronicling the history of the British communications intelligence agency (Government Communications Headquarters). Ferris stands next to an Enigma machine, a type of enciphering machine used by the German armed forces to send messages securely. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The idea that the British government would select a Canadian academic to serve as its “authorized historian” in chronicling the history of its British communications intelligence agency (Government Communications Headquarters) is, quite frankly, “unheard of” admits professor John Ferris, the man handpicked for the job.

The fact that Ferris was called to the table for the monumental task, the tome to be published in 2019, on the British communications intelligence agency’s 100th anniversary, speaks to his status as a leader and pioneering force in the field of intelligence history. As a scholar of international and strategic history, Ferris has definitively shown how signals intelligence has shaped war and power politics in the world for the last hundred years. Further, Ferris asserts, “It has also been a driving force in the development of the computer, the Internet and the ‘linked-in’ world in which we live today.”   

His is a research path that has been hard fought, as western governments have long resisted releasing the records of their signals intelligence efforts.

Ferris’s ambitious work led to him being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada last year.

“I’m quite certain I came to the attention of signals intelligence agencies because they recognized I had an understanding of their work,” says Ferris. “What makes me unusual among historians is that I can actually figure out the technical side, to a certain point, with the mathematics and the computers and the ways these have been used to hide and transfer language. And I’ve combined that with the skills of a historian. I’ve always tried to answer the ‘so what?’ question. So, you’ve cracked somebody’s codes, read their messages, now, what do you do with it? And, if you give a politician or a general this information, what do they do with it?”

Ferris’s research in the field of intelligence history dates back to the early 1980s when he earned his PhD at King’s College London. “The British government had been withholding from the public record, as much as it could, most of the material regarding signal intelligence. But, purely by accident, when I was studying there it hadn’t successfully weeded all of that material…. I tore away at that. Systematically I began digging through the files while learning what I could about the technical aspects of signals intelligence. It was an extremely difficult task, which is one of the reasons I liked it.”

Over the past two decades there has been a generational shift in the way signals intelligence agencies in the west operate, says Ferris. “Within the British and American agencies there has been an internal debate over how much material they should release to the public. They had a longstanding history of secrecy and there are real operational and security reasons to want to conceal certain things. But there’s also been an increasing awareness that they need public consent to function, and they began releasing more and more.”

What is greatly misunderstood about signals intelligence is the way in which its evolution has impacted the lives of the general populace, says Ferris. “A century ago, what happened with signals intelligence is that governments would read the mail of other governments. And, if they were unpleasant governments, they would read the mail of their own citizens. But it wasn’t possible for, say, the Russian or Chinese governments to read the mail of Canadian citizens.”

That has changed in the modern era with the rise of the computer and the Internet where information is exchanged freely, creating a world where our personal security is more compromised than ever.

 “Given the fact that we all keep our files online, if anybody can figure out your passwords they can read your emails, your text messages, your documents, any files you might not want uncovered. Governments can, and criminals can too.”

In many ways, Ferris argues, average citizens have more to fear from “low-level criminals” than from governments. “There are millions of people who can quite easily read your email or mine. Suddenly we’re living in a world where we are vulnerable to threats that would not have existed 30 years ago. There are far more potential predators today.”

Ferris is keenly aware that the practice of signals intelligence makes many people feel uneasy. “We all feel queasy with the idea that anybody could be reading our mail,” he says.

But it’s that very reality which makes signals intelligence crucially important for the ongoing security of western governments. “You either do it or you don’t, and if you don’t, do understand that the Russians, the Chinese and millions of criminals are not going to stop.”