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Shaken, stirred or hacked

india Updated: Dec 04, 2011 00:11 IST
John F Burns
John F Burns
Hindustan Times
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Back in the cloak-and-dagger days of secret intelligence work, Britain’s espionage agencies liked to recruit in the ivied colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, even if that brought them some of the most notorious turncoats of the 20th century, men like Kim Philby who handed atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.

In the Internet age, the spy catchers have been forced to go digital, democratic and outright pop. Their latest whiz, causing a buzz on the Internet — and stirring a torrent of Web chat — is an online cryptographic puzzle that promises a fast track to recruitment as spies for those who solve it before the challenge expires on December 11.

Twitter and websites say at least 50 people have solved the puzzle since it was posted last month. To all but practiced cryptographers, it looks baffling: a rectangular display of 160 letters and numbers, grouped in twos in blue against a black background, under the overline, “Can you crack it?”

The agency that posted the puzzle at is one of the oldest, and, espionage experts say, most successful eavesdropping organisations anywhere, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, located in a ring building surrounded by huge satellite dishes near Cheltenham, 120 miles west of London.

Helped by close relations with its US counterpart, the National Security Agency, GCHQ can hack into phone calls, e-mails and computers anywhere in the world. With language experts speaking everything from Amharic to Kazakh and 70 tongues besides, it has played a crucial role in cracking some of the biggest terror plots against the West in recent years.

Once decrypted, the agency’s online puzzle, through a process called steganography, yields a hidden message in the form of a keyword. Those who enter the keyword are led to a web address, where they are greeted with a congratulatory note. It is signed by Cyber Security Specialists, a new unit within the British agency responsible for combating cyberespionage threats.

“So you did it,” says the congratulatory message. “Now this is where it gets interesting. Could you use your skills and ingenuity to combat terrorism and cyberthreats? As one of our experts, you’ll help protect our nation’s security and the lives of thousands.” Those interested are then invited to submit a formal job application, leading to interviews for a total of 35 jobs next spring.

Skeptics have noted that recruiting techniques used by World War II code-breaking agencies included presenting candidates cryptographic crossword puzzles. Other skeptics on the Internet have dismissed the GCHQ puzzle as too easy. One cyberenthusiast, Dave Neal dismissed the puzzle as “not cool, and not very professional.”

A GCHQ spokesman described the puzzle as a follow-up on unusual methods it has used in the past to reach potential computer-age recruits who might escape traditional methods, which have included discreet advertisements in high-end magazines and newspapers. The newer tactics have included posting video content and downloadable information about the agency on the Web, and cyberpuzzles on popular video games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

“Code-cracking skills are vital to secure the very best talent and to support the GCHQ mission in its fight against cyberthreats,” the spokesman told The Daily Telegraph. “Our target audience is not typically attracted to traditional advertising methods.”

Many computer experts writing for British newspapers and Web sites suggested that the spy agency’s message, at least implicitly, was that it was looking for accomplished hackers, a community bruised lately in the backwash from the scandal enveloping Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire.

The agency, in listing the qualifications it requires of recruits, said it would accept only British citizens and would rule out anyone who had engaged in illegal hacking. But while saying it was looking for “good people” with a strong sense of fairmindedness, it also emphasised the value of a buccaneering spirit.

Those pressing the agency to lift its game have included UK Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has noted GCHQ’s past inability to recruit and retain “a suitable cadre of Internet specialists,” partly because its entry salaries — averaging about $48,000, far less than private sector wages — are uncompetitive.

The UK government has said it was the target of as many as 600 attacks on its computer systems every day.

Judging by the response to the spy agency’s puzzle, the government faces an uphill struggle, partly because in the community of hackers, government itself is uncool, if not the enemy. One hacker going by the name Ady urged the agency to “stick to employing upper-class twits from Oxford and Cambridge.” Hackers, called “hobbyists” in the post, know “governments are not really the sort of people you want to get involved with,” Ady said.