New exhibition reveals the secrets of spies

Inspect a gadget: Old-school code breakers and secret telephones designed to keep Britain safe.

See yourself as a real-life James Bond or Eve Polastri? To celebrate 100 years of the UK’s spy headquarters, the Science Museum is unveiling secret files and gadgets from a century of spying.

A typing machine that revealed Nazi secrets and saved millions of lives. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s top secret telephone hidden in a brief case.

These are among dozens of gadgets and declassified Top Secret documents, on display from today, at the Science Museum’s From Ciphers to Cyber Security exhibition. It marks 100 years since the foundation of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), the UK’s intelligence service.

But it’s not just about days gone-by. The exhibition also includes interviews with current GCHQ employees, who reveal how they foil terrorist plots and fend off cyber-attacks in the 21st century.

When we hear the word “spy”, most of us think of the glamour, danger and adventure of James Bond and Jason Bourne, but what is it really like?

The UK’s secret service has three branches: MI5, which operates in Britain; MI6, the international service, and GCHQ. According to their websites, all three agencies “work to protect the UK, its citizens, and interests at home and abroad”.

Traditionally, new spies were recruited among students at Oxbridge by secret service officers who visited the universities in search of potential candidates. Any would-be spies were given a discreet “tap on the shoulder” as a sign that they were being considered. Today, however, the secret service has a website and a far more open application process.

Spies (intelligence officers) are only allowed to tell close family about their work, or they risk being sent to prison under the Secrets Act.

Intelligence officers are in charge of recruiting agents to infiltrate terrorist groups or enemy governments. While officers can face real danger, they also “spend a large amount of time behind a desk doing paperwork”, checking sources and researching operations.

But they do get gadgets!

Real technology belonging to the CIA (the USA’s intelligence agency) includes a fake dragonfly with a tiny microphone; a make-up mirror for hiding codes, and bulletproof headphones.

Aside from the excitement of the job, Annie Machon, a former intelligence officer for MI5, says it can be difficult to cope with the secrecy of spying. “With outsiders, we could never be fully ourselves,” she says.

Would you be a modern spy?


Definitely not, say some. Living a double life is isolating and messes with your sense of reality. It would be a lonely life, never getting to be truly honest and open with your loved ones, and distancing yourself from friends. Not to mention the real danger of being suspected and facing prison — or even death.

Absolutely, argue others. Being a spy would give you an unparalleled chance to save lives by averting terrorist plots, serve your country, and make a real difference. While it’s not quite like starring in your own Bond film, it’s still a life of thrills and challenge. The sacrifices would be worth it to lead such an incredible life.

You Decide

  1. Would you become a spy?
  2. What qualities do you think spies need?


  1. Read the article by former MI5 officer Annie Machon in Become An Expert. Write what you think would be the two best and two worst things about being a spy.
  2. Research a famous spy from history and write a one-page biography of their life, including a picture.

Some People Say...

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

John le Carré (real name David Cornwell), British author of spy novels

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
From Ciphers to Cyber Security, an exhibition celebrating 100 years of GCHQ, opens today at London’s Science Museum. It will run until 23 February 2020. It’s a chance to see historical records and artefacts used by secret agents, alongside insights into the work of today’s spies, who protect Britain against current threats.
What do we not know?
Most GCHQ business. The service can only operate effectively if it keeps its work secret from any hostile groups seeking to harm the UK. We don’t know whether there will be another big cyber attack like the Wannacry hack on the NHS in 2017. Senior figures at GCHQ warn, however, that serious cyber-attacks are coming, and we must be prepared.

Word Watch

When documents that used to be secret become available to the public. This can happen after some years have passed.
The most secretive and mysterious branch of the secret service. It is based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Jason Bourne
A film series starring Matt Damon as a highly-trained spy, suffering from amnesia.
A portmanteau (a new word formed from two other words) that refers to both Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Secrets Act
The Official Secrets Act 1989 protects state secrets needed to keep the country safe.
Gain access under a false premise, for the purpose of gathering and passing on information.
Central Intelligence Agency, founded in 1947, based in Virginia, USA.
Some old spy gadgets were declassified by the CIA in 2016.


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