The NSA isn’t the only secretive national intelligence agency having trouble keeping its tech-savvy recruits. In a new document from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Britain’s spy agency describes its difficulty in fending off tech companies keen to poach its workers.
In the annual report, GCHQ highlights the growing international cyber threat and its need to scale up its own cyber operations accordingly, while noting that hiring and keeping cyber specialists in its ranks poses a strategic challenge.
“As noted previously, the level of resource allocated by Government to cyberrelated activities has increased considerably, and it is set to do so still further over the next five years,” the report states.
“… The continued expansion of cyber-related work is dependent on the Government’s ability to recruit and retain cyber specialists. GCHQ previously told us that it struggles to attract and retain a suitable and sufficient cadre of in-house technical specialists because it inevitably has to compete with big technology companies which are able to pay significantly more.”
Four years ago, GCHQ informed Parliament that it had worked to put “more flexible reward packages” in place to attract technical specialists. In an update on the initiative, GCHQ noted that “[this] has worked up to a point. It stemmed the flow of people going out in particular areas at particular stages of their career” while observing that “[it does] lose people for salaries. We couldn’t possibly compete with four, five times what they are getting from us.”
According to the report, GCHQ admitted that it “can probably never compete purely on salaries,” but still sees the unique nature of its work as a strong draw for potential recruits:
We compete on mission, worthwhile work, on interesting work, on variety. If you’re a pure mathematician, we’re the biggest employer of pure mathematicians in the UK. Going to some of these companies can be quite disappointing. Very well paid, but quite dull… You can go and be an actuary in the City and earn a fortune and use maths, but it won’t be quite the same as using maths where we are.
To meet emerging cyber threats, the FBI famously signaled that it might disregard its longstanding drug use policy in order to hire 420-friendly hackers. “I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” former FBI director James Comey told an audience at the White Collar Crime Institute conference in 2014.
Later, after coming under fire from then-senator and noted marijuana enemy Jeff Sessions, Comey retracted his comments and claimed that he was joking, but it’s clear that intelligence agencies are rethinking longstanding norms in order to shape a new kind of workforce — one that can rise to meet the rising tide of global cyber threats.