How we tried and failed at becoming spies by solving the GCHQ puzzle

It was an interesting challenge, attempting to decode a hidden message from the UK intelligence agency’s visual puzzle.
Could you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQCould you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQ
Could you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQ

In a world full of issues and threats, the UK's intelligence, security and cyber agency has been presented with the unique challenge of finding promising new recruits.

Traditionally, GCHQ has plucked promising people from university courses, but in the modern world it has instead turned to Linkedin.

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Making its debut on the platform, the GCHQ shared a visual puzzle which looked to find potential recruits who “process information differently and possess strong lateral-thinking skills”.

Could you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQCould you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQ
Could you solve the GCHQ puzzle? Image: GCHQ

But how would two reporters from The Scotsman get on with such a challenge?

Before the answer was uncovered by GCHQ, Lauren Jack and David Hepburn attempted to see if they had what it takes to become a spy.

How Lauren got on solving the GCHQ puzzle

I am not good at puzzles. Very often I get bored and give up halfway through, something my short-lived Wordle streak can attest to.

When I first stared at the image, there was a lot going on and I wasn’t sure what was relevant and what wasn’t. Then I spotted the hands. My sister spent some time teaching herself British Sign Language (BSL), and I was able to identify that the last hand was fingerspelling the letter 'e'.

Thinking along the same lines of unspoken languages, the Alan Turing in the top right corner felt as though he was looming large. I won’t claim to be overly familiar with the mathematician, but the TV and the layout of the dots on the bombe machine was tickling something at the back of my mind. Thinking about alphabets, codes and the raised dots in lifts, the processor in my brain finally churned to life and Braille gave us the letter 'y'.

Still thinking along the same lines, the series of dashes on the road seemed significant. I wasn’t sure how and instead went on a brief tangent in an attempt to translate the meaningless binary at the top of the image.

Frustrated with the nonsense it spat back at me, I returned to the road and thought of machines – specifically one I encountered at the Warsaw Rising Museum. Home to an interactive morse code machine, I began to understand why the character eyeing the road markings was an inspector, and found they spelled out the letter 'o'.

The Morse Code alphabet (Image: Adobe Stock)The Morse Code alphabet (Image: Adobe Stock)
The Morse Code alphabet (Image: Adobe Stock)
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The water at the front had been defined in the image as the sea, allowing me to find the letter 'c'. Before I could explore that particular train of thought, I registered the love motifs surrounding the graffiti artwork on one of the buildings.

Having suffered through a customer service job in which I spent too much time rattling off serial numbers down the phone, the phonetic alphabet was once my best friend. I figured out Romeo and Juliet – 'r' and 'j', as well as 'h' for hotel, and 'g' for golf – but remained oblivious to the final phonetic clue.

At this point, David came to the rescue with his findings so far. Including 'n' for November, he presented the letters 'q', 't', 'u', and 'b'.

How did David tackle the puzzle?

So near and yet so far. I love puzzles but am absolutely dreadful at them - so not solving the GCHQ one came as no surprise. I was quite pleased at how close we came though (mainly thanks to Lauren).

At first all I could see were the two most obvious clues - the sheep/ewe/u at the front of the picture and the sea/c in front of it - and was about to give up. But then the golf/g was an entry into all the phonetic alphabet clues - drummed into me many years ago at Cub Scouts - quickly adding Juliet/j, Romeo/r, November/n and hotel/h.

Add in the 'q' from the queue of cars and a cup of tea/t and I was feeling quite pleased with myself. Time to hand in my notice and become a spy.

But then, disaster - I mistakenly thought the sign language clue was a 'b' rather than an 'e' (although I managed to get an 'e' mistakenly from thinking something looked a bit like an email). Lauren's brilliance in getting the braille 'y' and morse code 'o' got us back on track. She also got the right sign language answer but for some reason I chose to ignore her.

Did we manage to solve the GCHQ puzzle?

No, we did not.

In our enthusiasm we didn’t double check exactly where each of our letters came from, leading us to working with a couple of duds.

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In David’s words: “Time to hazard a guess at the answer with what we had - having already ascertained that 'GCHQ' must be in there. GCHQ entry job? It is a job advert after all, but it's one letter short. There must be an 's' in there - GCHQ entry jobs? We'd done it!

“Sadly not quite - the rogue 'b' and missing an extra 'o' for a bottle of water/eau meant we were doomed to failure. I still think our answer was better though…”

The real solution to the GCHQ puzzle was “Journey to GCHQ”.

Oh well.

Despite our failure, it was a fun attempt at becoming the next 007.

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