Home: Opinion

UK spy agencies and arms manufacturers are teaching children, but not telling us what

There is a worrying lack of transparency over the involvement of the military-industrial complex in schools.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 June 2020, 4.44pm
Students taking part in GCHQ's cyber security educational course.
National Cyber Security Centre.

One element of the military-industrial complex that is often overlooked is the role of intelligence agencies. Since 2000, nine out of ten spy chiefs have taken up lucrative posts – paid well over £2m – in cyber security firms or oil and gas companies after retiring, according to recent reports.    

That revolving door may explain the willingness of intelligence agencies to work very closely with some of the world’s largest arms companies. This week, Declassified UK revealed that Britain’s largest intelligence agency GCHQ has been working with several defence companies – in scores of schools.

Their report describes an extensive programme run by GCHQ’s Cyber Schools Hub (CSH) programme known as CyberFirst which has grown rapidly to involve some 22,000 children in primary and secondary schools, mostly within reach of GCHQ’s headquarters in Cheltenham. According to its website: 

“The CSH pilot has proved to be successful at a local level and the NCSC now wishes to increase the scale of ambition and formally recognise schools who are committed to providing a structured approach to excellence in cyber security education. The CyberFirst Schools programme will initially be limited to schools in Gloucestershire and Wales.”

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And with local and national companies it shares the aim “of encouraging young people to engage with computer science and the application of cyber security in everyday technology.”

It may all seem reasonable, and GCHQ presents itself as a key hub in the protection of national security, but there are problems with this. Back in 2013, Edward Snowden showed that GCHQ had been secretly intercepting, processing and storing data on millions of people’s communications under the Tempora scheme. Five years later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that such surveillance violated rights to privacy and freedom of expression.  

Furthermore, while some details of the GCHQ’s schools programme are in the public domain, Declassified UK's attempts to explore further through the 2000 Freedom of Information Act were ruled invalid under a section of the act concerning bodies involved with security matters. 

Some of the world’s largest arms companies are also involved in the programme. They include the UK’s largest arms exporter, BAE Systems, as well as two US corporations, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. The world’s largest arms company, Lockheed Martin is a part of it and has, according to Declassified UK, been awarded exclusive ‘associate’ status in the programme, with children able to gain work experience at a new cyber security facility in Gloucester

Raytheon is a substantial supplier of weapons used in Iraq and Yemen, and BAE Systems plays a major support role in the Saudi war in Yemen by maintaining Saudi Air Force planes, with Amnesty International arguing that both companies should be investigated by the International Criminal Court for complicity in war crimes

Lockheed Martin’s role is even more direct since it manufactures the Mark 82 bomb used by an attack by Saudi Air Force planes two years ago that killed 40 children on a school bus in Yemen. This is part of the company’s activity that might not figure in the work experience for schoolchildren in Gloucester.

Another element in GCHQ’s work with schools is a classic example of the revolving door. Two former staff members retired and then set up a company, Cyber Security Associates (CSA), that has hosted dozens of children in a work experience programme. CSA was incorporated just before the GCHQ schools programme was set up but did not respond to questions about whether this was with the blessing of GCHQ.

As Emma Sangster of ForcesWatch puts it:

“The creep of the security state into schools is not receiving the public scrutiny it deserves. Not only is the understandable interest of children and teenagers in this area being exploited for the benefit of under-the-radar interests, but facilitating activities such as hacking puts young people at risk by encouraging potentially illegal activity.”

Such concerns can be readily discounted by arguing that the schools programme is a legitimate part of GCHQ’s function of providing a national cyber-secure environment. After all, we live in a dangerous world and working with young people must surely be a perfectly reasonable activity.   

The problem is that it forms part of a wider involvement of the military industrial complex in education, as shown graphically in Mik Dixon’s recent documentary “War School: The Battle for Britain’s Children”. It also includes powerful arms companies linked to controversial wars and in a culture that seems deeply reluctant to respond to specific questions.   

Put bluntly, transparency is singularly lacking. It does, though, raise the interesting question of whether the thousands of school children and their teachers involved in the various schemes have been required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

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