11 Sep 2013

Crack the code to work for GCHQ

Can you break the code to become a spy? GCHQ attempts a new recruitment drive to target top code breakers, mathematicians and “ethical hackers” as it tries to move beyond the Prism scandal.

Crack the code to work for GCHQ

James Bond eat your heart out – or maybe Q.

The government has launched a new online code-breaking challenge in a bid to recruit some of Britain’s best brains to fight threats against the UK from cyberspace and beyond.

Wannabe spooks have been given the code (above) and told to follow the trail of cyber clues to be in with a chance of working at GCHQ.

It’s a puzzle but it’s also a serious test – the jobs on offer here are vital to protecting national security. Jane Jones, GCHQ

The “Can you find it?” challenge follows last year’s “Can you crack it?” campaign, among others, which attracted 5,000 new applicants for the agency, from which 170 applications were taken forward.

GCHQ’s head of resourcing, Jane Jones, said: “The 21st century is confronting us with online threats that are difficult and dangerous, so we want employees who have evolved with the ever-changing digital world and therefore have the right skills to combat these challenges.

“It’s a puzzle but it’s also a serious test – the jobs on offer here are vital to protecting national security.”

A cultural shift - or PR spin? 
GCHQ's attempts to attract new recruits with an online code-cracking exercise hint at a cultural shift in the organisation. But with recent revelations about its activities, polishing its reputation is going to be tough, writes Channel 4 News Technology Producer Geoff White.

The listening post has hired an external recruitment firm to attract new talent, promising an exciting career tackling "difficult and dangerous" online threats.

It's questionable how many people who complete the exercises will actually end up working at GCHQ - there's a small matter of security clearance for a start.

The Cheltenham-based spy centre is certainly staffing up, thanks to its large share of the government's £650m cybersecurity budget. But it already has a tie-up with Britain's leading universities, who supply the best brains when it comes to computer science, maths and cryptography.

It's therefore hard to ignore the PR spin behind today's campaign. The government will surely be hoping that a funky, high-profile recruitment drive can claw back some positive publicity from revelations that GCHQ has been intimately involved a worldwide effort to eavesdrop on all our communications.

The codes have been created by a GCHQ team of mathematicians, and are aimed at attracting those who have the brains but not necessarily the practical experience or qualifications to join GCHQ and “support the government’s national cyber security agenda“.

The government says it wants to find mathematicians, code breakers and what it calls “ethical hackers” from across the country who want to follow in the footsteps of computing greats like Alan Turing, whose efforts at Bletchley Park during world war two provided key intelligence for the allies by deciphering messages encrypted by the German Enigma machine.

The jobs on offer vary from cyber and technical operations to maths and cryptography, and salaries range from £26,000 to £60,000.

Applicants will have six weeks to hunt down the four codes which follow the initial cypher, above. Each code needs to be entered into the “Can you find it?” website to unveil the next clue in the online treasure hunt. Winners also have the chance to win a Raspberry Pi or Google Nexus 7.