Get cracking: work as a team to solve our festive puzzle, says GCHQ

GCHQ has released seven “fiendish puzzles” for Christmas aimed at secondary school children keen on science, technology and engineering, which it hopes will stimulate interest in its intelligence work and similar careers.

The normally secretive signals intelligence agency said completing the seven puzzles, sent out on its Christmas card, would require secondary school classes to work as a team. The successful completion of all seven questions will unlock a final challenge to complete.

Six of the seven puzzles have one word answers that have to be assembled into three words to form an address of a place using the the popular what3words mobile phone app. The Christmas tree on the front of the card is a guide to how the words should be arranged.

What3words works by turning every location into a combination of three everyday words, allowing people to find them easily. Buckingham Palace is fence.gross.bats while 10 Downing Street is slurs.this.shark.

A seventh puzzle has a three-word answer that can also be turned into a location using the same mobile phone app. The complete solution, GCHQ said, is obtained by taking a single word from each of the locations, to produce a seasonal message.

GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), which monitors and intercepts communications on behalf of the UK, normally discusses or discloses very little of its operations.

But it is keen to find ways to promote itself to help with recruitment, emphasising the scientific and technical expertise critical to its work.

It has often highlighted the success British cryptanalysts had in cracking the German Enigma machines during the second world war. But as the time from the end of the fight against the Nazis has lengthened, it has increasingly promoted the efforts of what it says are an in-house “team of puzzlers”.

You may conifer: the Christmas card sent by GCHQ’s director. Photograph: GCHQ/PA

Some say care should be taken with the spy agency’s public relations efforts. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee said “public outreach” by Britain’s spy agencies “must be undertaken in a strategic and considered manner”.

The all-party committee said on Tuesday that there was a risk that “if media engagement strategies go too far”, it could end up “trivialising the important work of the agencies and diverting their focus from national security priorities”.

The puzzle features on GCHQ’s official Christmas card, sent by the agency’s chief, Sir Jeremy Fleming, with the aim of emphasising that it takes teamwork and a range of skills to solve complex problems.

“This year’s GCHQ Christmas card challenge gives an insight into the skills we need every day as part of our mission – from languages to coding. But skills alone won’t be enough to crack this one. Puzzlers need to combine a mix of minds to solve the seemingly impossible,” Fleming added.

Schools interested in taking part in the puzzles can find a resource pack on the GCHQ website. More puzzles aimed at youngsters can be found at GCHQ and in Puzzles for Spies, a book published earlier this year by Puffin.

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