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

Historians in the News
tags: John Ferris, signals intelligence



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.” ...

Read entire article at University of Calgary

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