You don't have to be good at puzzles to be a spy, GCHQ chief tells children

·4-min read
GCHQ kids puzzle book
GCHQ kids puzzle book

You don't need to be top of the class to be a spy, the GCHQ chief has told children, as the agency publishes its first kids' puzzle book.

Sir Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, said it was a “myth” that everyone at Britain’s cyber spy agency is good at puzzles.

Marking the release of GCHQ’s first puzzle book aimed at children, the cyber agency has released a bonus brain-teaser that took over a century to crack.

The Cheltenham-based intelligence agency hopes the fiendish quizzes, which follow on the back of two similar books aimed at adults, will appeal to future spies and highlight the value of thinking differently.

In the foreword to the new book, Puzzles for Spies, Sir Jeremy said: “Having thoroughly baffled the grown-ups, we wrote this book especially for children.

“It’s a myth that everyone at GCHQ is good at puzzles, we are all different – that’s our greatest strength.

“People come to work for us from across the country, from all sorts of backgrounds. They work together, each offering their own perspective and way of thinking to solve difficult problems. The thing we all have in common is commitment to the security of the nation.”

Sir Jeremy Fleming
Sir Jeremy Fleming

The bonus puzzle was released to mark the publication of the new book and test the nation’s problem-solving skills.

Intelligence chiefs hope to inspire Britain’s codebreakers, engineers, mathematicians and linguists of the future.

The book will test potential puzzle-solvers on languages, engineering, codebreaking, analysis, maths, coding and cyber security, all key skills that GCHQ says are needed to be a spy in the organisation.

The special puzzle released along with the book is based on the four-colour theorem.

The theory, which dates from 1852, required sleuths to colour in a picture of a bowl of fruit, using no more than four colours, with no touching shapes having the same colour.

It took more than a hundred years for anyone to come up with the answer, and was the first major theorem to be proved using a computer.

Colin, whose surname is withheld by GCHQ and who goes by the unofficial title of Chief Puzzler, said: “You don’t have to be a quiz champion – or even top of the class – to work at GCHQ.

“You just need to have an interest in figuring things out and an infectious curiosity. This is why so many of us are so fond of puzzles.

“We don’t spend all of our time putting together jigsaws and filling out crosswords. But creating and solving puzzles in our spare time requires the same skills which our teams use when tackling new problems in different and inventive ways to help keep the nation safe. It’s also really fun.”

Ingenuity and perseverance

GCHQ says the puzzle is an example of the lateral thinking, ingenuity and perseverance needed by those working at the intelligence and security agency across its missions to keep the country safe.

The cyber spies say the book has many more puzzles “to test thinking skills”, some easier and others “even harder”.

The book also shares personal stories from members of staff about their journey to working for GCHQ and some insight into the secretive work they do, in addition to stories about the agency’s war-time history and beginnings.

GCHQ has previously created two puzzle books for adults, The GCHQ Puzzle Book and The GCHQ Puzzle Book II, with proceeds going to the Royal Foundation of the Prince and Princess of Wales to support its mental health work.

Britain’s cyber spy agency, part of the Foreign Office alongside sister organisation MI6, has for more than 100 years worked in secret to gather information and solve the toughest of problems to help keep the UK and allies safe.

Speaking at a conference in Wales earlier this year, Sir Jeremy said passing intelligence on the “behaviours and tactics” of Vladimir Putin’s forces was helping Ukraine “excel” in the war against Russia.

He said a “remarkable feature” of the conflict was “how much intelligence has been released by Western allies to challenge and get ahead of Putin’s actions.

“This is modern warfare influenced and shaped by the democratisation of information. Thankfully, the Ukrainians are excelling at it. We’re proud to be playing our part in supporting their efforts.”

Can you solve the bonus puzzle?

GCHQ brain-teaser
GCHQ brain-teaser