- REUTERS/Aly Song
- GCHQ, one of the UK’s spy agencies, is having trouble hiring new talent because big tech firms can pay up to five times more.
- As the threat from foreign hackers ramps up, the agency needs more cyberspecialists to counteract attacks on the government and critical infrastructure.
- The agency fell short of its recruitment targets by 22% in 2016 but said the problem could partly be solved by speeding up its vetting process.
The UK’s surveillance agency, GCHQ, is having trouble recruiting new spies because current and potential spooks want to take better-paid jobs at big tech firms such as Apple, Google, and Facebook.
A December report from the government’s security services watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, cited GCHQ representatives who said big tech firms could offer “four or five times more” for cyberspecialists and security specialists than the agency could.
At the same time, the report also acknowledges that the threat from foreign hackers is growing. This year alone, there were attacks on MPs from hackers who tried to guess their email passwords and the devastating WannaCry attack that almost crippled the NHS.
GCHQ, a domestic agency that is responsible for surveillance, also said it would speed up the vetting process to try to address its backlog of potential recruits.
Here’s what the report from the watchdog said (emphasis ours):
“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. In 2013, we were told that GCHQ had implemented more flexible reward packages for technical specialists. Now this has had time to become established, we questioned whether it was having the desired effect. GCHQ informed us 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’ but that ‘we do lose people for salaries. We couldn’t possibly compete with four, five times what they are getting from us.'”
GCHQ reported a 22% shortfall in recruitment for 2015 heading into 2016 but said it would boost the number of people vetting new spies. It had 51 in June 2016 and aims to have 110 by 2018. The agency wants to increase its headcount by 14% over the next four years, aiming for a staff of 6,639 by March 2020.
It isn’t news that big tech firms hire spies, though the reasons vary from cybersecurity to actual spying on competitors. An explosive legal letter recently claimed that the ride-hailing firm Uber hired former CIA operatives to dig out competitor trade secrets and eavesdrop on private WhatsApp conversations.