Who Wants to Work for the NSA?

While Congress and the President are covering for the agency, many of those who are qualified don’t want to work for the NSA.

The struggle with the NSA has been extremely frustrating. When a whistleblower exposes their spying, they get to stay in the United States and keep operating while the whistleblower has to flee to Russia. The President refuses to do anything to stop the NSA’s activities, even when its actions expose the United States to the hatred of the world. The NSA has compromised the ability of U.S. industries to sell cyber-related products in other countries because they seem to have compromised the products themselves. They have worked to degrade security standards, leaving the world more vulnerable to hackers in order to make the world more vulnerable to their surveillance.

[See also, “Conflict of Interest? NSA Chief Working on Cybersecurity Patents.”]

Amid all this darkness, there is a bit of hope that shines out. If you think about it, you might guess what it would be. Think about two questions: 1) What kind of professional does the NSA need to work for the agency? 2) What kind of professional would be most upset with what the NSA is doing?

The answers to both questions are the same: computer programmers.

Thus, NPR reports, “After Snowden, The NSA Faces Recruitment Challenge.”

Daniel Swann is exactly the type of person the National Security Agency would love to have working for it. The 22-year-old is a fourth-year concurrent bachelor’s-master’s student at Johns Hopkins University with a bright future in cybersecurity.

And growing up in Annapolis, Md., not far from the NSA’s headquarters, Swann thought he might work at the agency, which intercepts phone calls, emails and other so-called “signals intelligence” from U.S. adversaries.

“When I was a senior in high school I thought I would end up working for a defense contractor or the NSA itself,” Swann says. Then, in 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a treasure-trove of top-secret documents. They showed that the agency’s programs to collect intelligence were far more sweeping than Americans realized.

After Snowden’s revelations, Swann’s thinking changed. The NSA’s tactics, which include retaining data from American citizens, raise too many questions in his mind: “I can’t see myself working there,” he says, “partially because of these moral reasons.”

This year, the NSA needs to find 1,600 recruits. Hundreds of them must come from highly specialized fields like computer science and mathematics. So far, it says, the agency has been successful. But with its popularity down, and pay from wealthy Silicon Valley companies way up, agency officials concede that recruitment is a worry. If enough students follow Daniel Swann, then one of the world’s most powerful spy agencies could lose its edge.

From the story, it seems that part of the problem is that Silicon Valley companies pay more. So the NSA had to rely largely on prestige in order to get savvy computer specialists to choose them over a job in the private sector. Snowden has ruined the prestige factor in the eyes of many people.

There is a dark side. The NSA is also finding people who heard about the Snowden leaks and think that it would be “cool” to work for the spy agency. They actually apply to work at the NSA because Snowden’s revelations make it seem attractive to them!

This means that, even though the NSA is struggling to get employees, the ones they get may be even more interested in illegal surveillance than the ones who are there now.