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After Snowden, The NSA Faces Recruitment Challenge

Mar 31, 2015
Originally published on March 31, 2015 8:16 am

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.

People Power Makes The Difference

Contrary to popular belief, the NSA's black buildings aren't simply filled with code-cracking supercomputers.

"There's no such thing as a computer that can break any code," says Neal Ziring, a technical lead in the agency's information assurance directorate. "People like to think there's some magic bullet here, and there isn't. It's all hard work."

Hard work done by a lot of people. Nationwide, the NSA employs roughly 35,000. And each year it must find recruits to keep it at the cutting edge of code-making and code-breaking. It gets those recruits from hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide, including Johns Hopkins University.

Matthew Green, a professor of computer science at Hopkins, says the number of such students the school turns out each year can vary. "Sometimes it's a half-a-dozen," he says. "Sometimes it's just one or two."

Green says the Snowden leaks have changed academia's views of the agency.

"Before the Snowden leaks we looked at the NSA as being a spy agency, and they did what they were supposed to do," he says. "But we've learned that they're been collecting this incredible amount of information. And they're not shy about doing whatever they have to do to get access to that information."

Green says he doesn't feel as friendly toward the NSA as he once did. It's important that people learn about the Snowden documents, he says, and he teaches about them to students like Swann. Swann says Green's class helped shape his thinking on whether to work for the NSA.

Someone like Daniel Swann is a fairly rare commodity. Hopkins is a big university, but its Information Security Institute will produce just 31 master's this year. Of those, only five are U.S. citizens — a requirement to work at the NSA. With similarly small numbers at other schools, how many Daniel Swanns are rejecting the agency because of the Snowden leaks?

"Well that's kind of a tricky question," says Ziring, the NSA computer scientist. Ziring also helps lead academic outreach for the agency. "When I've been out on campuses and talking to students," he says, "there are some of them ... that puts them off or they have doubts." On the other hand, Ziring says, the Snowden leaks have sparked other students' interest. "[They say], 'I actually know some of what you do now, and that's really cool and I want to come do that," he says.

Corporations Willing To Pay Top Dollar

But Ziring says there's a much bigger problem:

"I was at a Dartmouth career fair a few months ago," he says, "and our table was right across from Facebook. And we are looking for some of the same things that they are."

Ever since the Snowden leaks, cybersecurity has been hot in Silicon Valley. In part that's because the industry no longer trusts the government as much as it once did. Companies want to develop their own security, and they're willing to pay top dollar to get the same people the NSA is trying to recruit.

Students like Swann. Last summer Microsoft paid him $7,000 a month to work as an intern. The company even rented him a car.

"It was actually really nice," Swann says. "It was a Subaru Legacy."

Ziring says the agency can't compete on money, so he tries to sell it in other ways:

"You know we have good health benefits, and we're government, right? So we have a huge scope of insurance to choose from," he says.

Things like work-life balance and continuing education do attract some people. Alyssa is a mathematician in her mid-20s who has been working at the NSA for just under two years. (She and the NSA won't tell NPR her last name because her work is classified.) Alyssa joined the agency right as the Snowden documents were being made public, and she wrestled with whether it was the right thing to do. Her mom wanted her to go for the big bucks, instead.

"She actually held a grudge for a long time that I wasn't getting a higher paying job," Alyssa says.

But Alyssa chose the NSA anyway. And she's glad she did.

"I absolutely love what I'm doing now," she says. Which is classified, so she won't say anything more about it — except that it's the kind of stuff she can't work on anywhere else.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to the recruiting challenge at the National Security Agency. The NSA's techniques for gathering emails and phone records have been controversial for some time. And that may be making it harder for the agency to recruit new codebreakers. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel visited the NSA to see firsthand if the agency can still draw top math and computing talent.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Neal Ziring is a computer scientist at the NSA. And contrary to what you might believe about the NSA, it's not all supercomputers cracking codes.

NEAL ZIRING: There's no such thing as a computer that can break any code. And there isn't. It's all hard work.

BRUMFIEL: Work done by a lot of people - nationwide, the NSA employs roughly 35,000. And each year, it must find new recruits to keep it at the cutting edge of code making and code breaking. It gets those recruits from places like Johns Hopkins University, which is just up the road from the NSA's Maryland headquarters. Matthew Green is a professor of computer science there. He says each year, he has students going to work for the NSA.

MATTHEW GREEN: Well, it ranges. Sometimes, it's a half-a-dozen. Sometimes, it's just one or two.

BRUMFIEL: Johns Hopkins may be nearby, but it's not unique. The NSA recruits at hundreds of universities across the country. It's been that way for years until 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked a huge trove of top-secret NSA documents. They showed the agency had a sweeping program that's scooped up data from emails, phones and elsewhere.

GREEN: Before the Snowden leaks, we all looked at the NSA as basically being, you know, a spy agency. And they did what they were supposed to do, which is they found people who are threats to national security, and they listened into their traffic. But we've learned that they're collecting this incredible amount of information. And they're not shy about doing whatever they have to do to get access to that information.

BRUMFIEL: Now Green doesn't feel as friendly towards the NSA as he once did. He thinks it's important people learn about the Snowden documents. He teaches about them in his classes to students like Daniel Swann.

DANIEL SWANN: I'm a fourth-year concurrent bachelors-masters student in computer science here at Hopkins.

BRUMFIEL: Swann grew up not too far from the NSA in Annapolis, Md. And he's exactly the type of person they would love to have working for them.

SWANN: When I was a senior in high school, I thought I would end up working for a defense contractor or the NSA itself. That was actually a big priority for me. I wrote about that in my college essay - about how serving the country was important to me - things like that. But the past couple years, (laughter) I can say that has definitely taken a different turn.

BRUMFIEL: After Snowden and taking Matthew Green's class, Swann says he's changed his mind about the NSA.

SWANN: I can't see myself working there in the near future, partly because of these moral reasons.

BRUMFIEL: Someone like Daniel Swann is a fairly rare commodity. Hopkins is a big university. But this year, the school's Information Security Institute, which specializes in cybersecurity, will produce just 31 masters. And of those, just five are U.S. citizens, a requirement to work at the NSA. The agency must recruit hundreds of computer science and math students each year. How many like Daniel Swann are turning away because of the Snowden leaks?

ZIRING: That's kind of a tricky question.

BRUMFIEL: That's Neal Ziring. Ziring also helps lead academic outreach for the agency.

ZIRING: When I've been out on campuses and talking to students - right? - there are some of them that - that puts them off, or it makes them have doubts.

BRUMFIEL: But honestly, Ziring says there's a much bigger problem.

ZIRING: I was at Dartmouth career fair a few months ago. And our table's sort of right across from Facebook. And we are looking for some of the same things that they are.

BRUMFIEL: Ever since the Snowden leaks, cybersecurity has been hot in Silicon Valley. That's in part because the industry no longer trusts the government as much as it once did. Companies want to develop their own security, and they're willing to pay top dollar to get the same people the NSA is trying to recruit - students like Daniel Swann. Last summer, Microsoft paid him $7,000 a month to be an intern. They even threw in a rental car.

SWANN: It was actually really nice. It was a Subaru Legacy (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: The NSA's Ziring says the agency can't compete on money. So he tries to sell it in other ways.

ZIRING: You know, we have good health benefits. And we're government - right? - so we have huge scope of insurance to choose from.

BRUMFIEL: Can things like work-life balance and continuing education really attract young talent when the money is so good elsewhere? I put that question to one of the NSA's newest recruits.

ALISA: My name is Alisa. I've been working at NSA for just under two years.

BRUMFIEL: The NSA won't tell me Alisa's last name because her work is classified. But she's a mathematician in her mid-twenties. She joined right as the Snowden documents were being made public. She wrestled with whether it was the right thing to do. Her mom wanted her to go for the big bucks.

ALISA: She actually kind of held a grudge for a long time that I was not getting a higher-paying job.

BRUMFIEL: But Alisa came anyway. And she's glad she did.

ALISA: I absolutely love what I'm doing now.

BRUMFIEL: Which is classified, so she won't say anything more about it, except it's the kind of stuff she can't work on anywhere else. The NSA says that, so far, it's been able to find enough students like Alisa. But it will keep having to make the hard sell. This year alone, the agency will need to hire a total of 1,600 new recruits. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.