GCHQ's favourite memes and sexual slang reveals a shared culture with trolls and hackers
Leaked documents of the spy agency's toolkit shed light on its internal mindset
Thursday 17 July 2014
Do you know what a 'Swamp Donkey' is? How about an 'Angry Pirate' or a 'Bombayroll'? All of these are software tools used by GCHQ to manipulate information online but if you Google them, the only hits are from Urban Dictionary.
It turns out that when it comes to code names, the UK's premier online spying agency prefers to to stick to obscure sexual slang, comic book characters and internet memes.
Although we’re no stranger to the agency's often-unfathomable naming conventions (documents leaked in January listed a metadata-grabbing program named ‘Squeaky Dolphin’) this latest batch reveals that not only does GCHQ share a toolkit with the hackers and trolls it often targets, but a common culture as well.
Of course, it's fair to say that the internal documents of any institution will reveal an unsettlingly casual mindset (the slang used by doctors is notoriously unsentimental for example) but it's still hard to tally this culture with a spy agency that claims to carry out its work inside a "strict legal and policy framework" and with "rigorous oversight".
Here’s a highlight of some of the odder names that GCHQ chose:
This vintage 2001 clip of a shirtless and bearded raver locking down a street party in Berlin is unfortunately a "subsystem of JAZZ FUSION" (a generic information access tool) in GCHQ's toolkit.
Deadpool, aka 'the Merc with a Mouth', is perhaps the internet's most beloved comic book character and one of a string of comic-inspired code names including NIGHTCRAWLER, HAVOK, and SHADOWCAT - the last being a tool used for securing encrypted access to the Tor network, an ex-Darpa project that's now beloved of privacy fans online.
This isn't a name we're going to explain here, but one of many examples of GCHQ embracing the sort of misogynistic sexual slang that's briefly hilarious in secondary school changing rooms. It seems that Urban Dictionary was in fact a regular source for the code name team, with STEALTH MOOSE, SWAMP DONKEY and BOMBAYROLL all showing up in the online dictionary.
The name is a slightly antiquated reference to Star Trek and the tool itself is similarly aged - used to "actively grab the IP address of an MSN messenger user". And for geeks who like to get involved in the classic Star Trek vs Star Wars debate GCHQ are right there with you, with another program named after Star Wars' 'POD RACE'.
Another reference to an aging meme - Arson Sam was an edited version of classic UK children's show Fireman Sam, with episode clips played backwards so that Sam continually started fires and deposited citizens in burning buildings.
All of this might not seem like that much a big deal (especially compared with the surveillance powers that we know about that were voted through the House of Commons earlier this week) but with the Government still refusing to either confirm or deny whether programs like Project Tempora even exist, the maturity of the agents who can pick through our personal data is no laughing matter.
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