In the days of the Cold War and James Bond, recruitment to the security services was through a clandestine ‘nod and a wink’, a tap on the shoulder or a whisper in university corridors. Historically, particularly bright students were invited for a “cup of tea and a chat” by the intelligence service. It was who knew whom, and certainly not a transparent process. However, the UK intelligence agency, MI5, has been openly advertising for recruits since the 1990s.

However, with the increasing threat of cyber-attacks on the western world, the nature of the danger to national governments is changing and security services are opening their recruitment process to self-taught hackers and mathematical geniuses; not the normal stereotypical spy recruit!

Cyber-attacks on the UK’s information technology systems were identified in last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review as one of the four most serious threats to national security, alongside terrorism, natural disasters and major accidents

The UK has been subjected to millions of cyber-attacks in the past two years. These range from routine low-level criminal attacks on individuals, usually involving the theft of credit card details, through to state-sponsored espionage. As a consequence, the country loses £27bn a year, most of it in the form of stolen intellectual property – the inventions and plans which drive an economy. In October, Iain Lobban, who runs GCHQ, warned that the “UK’s continued economic wellbeing” was under threat because sensitive data on government computers was being targeted. He added, “We are witnessing the development of a global criminal market place; a parallel black economy where cyber-dollars are traded in exchange for UK citizens’ credit card details”.

Last week the UK government and its security arm, GCHQ, launched its latest recruitment campaign as an internet ‘viral’, spread via social networking sites – such as Facebook and Twitter – and blogs.

GCHQ is looking to hire up to 35 new members in the coming months and are using the puzzle game to narrow down the number of applicants. GCHQ introduced the puzzle – which contains no reference to the agency – to try to find people with the right skills for espionage in the computer age. Potential recruits are asked to solve a code-cracking challenge; the first of its kind by the organisation.  The challenge has six parts, each containing three puzzles, and all leading to a single answer which takes the form of a nine-letter word with a mathematical connection. Potential applicants can participate in the competition, which will be available on social networking sites as well as an unbranded standalone website.

A GCHQ spokesman said:

‘The target audience for this particular campaign is one that may not typically be attracted to traditional advertising methods and may be unaware that GCHQ is recruiting for these kinds of roles. Their skills may be ideally suited to our work and yet they may not understand how they could apply them to a working environment, particularly one where they have the opportunity to contribute so much.’

Those who successfully crack the code will be automatically redirected to the GCHQ website’s recruitment page and invited to apply for a post in the intelligence service. They could then be fast-tracked to a career in the secret service. However, the competition is open to only British citizens and illegal hackers are ineligible to participate! A GCHQ representative said roughly 80 percent of those who have solved the puzzle have applied for a job.

IB-style questions


1. Define the following terms:


  • Internet ‘viral’
  • Intellectual property

2. Explain the role and importance of intellectual property rights for business

3. Examine the potential impact of cyber-crime on a national economy, and how individual businesses can seek to protect their intellectual property.

4. Using specific examples, evaluate the use of online methods of recruitment and training.


Sources: Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sky News