GCHQ challenges codebreakers via social networks

Screen shot of the code breaking challenge GCHQ says the competition has a certain level of difficulty

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UK intelligence agency GCHQ has launched a code-cracking competition to help attract new talent.

The organisation has invited potential applicants to solve a visual code posted at an unbranded standalone website.

The challenge has also been "seeded" to social media sites, blogs and forums.

A spokesman said the campaign aimed to raise the profile of GCHQ to an audience that would otherwise be difficult to reach.

"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," the spokesman said.

"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."

The competition began in secret on 3 November and will continue until 12 December.

GCHQ said that once the code was cracked individuals would be presented with a keyword to enter into a form field. They would then be redirected to the agency's recruitment website.

The organisation said it was not worried that the problem's answer might be spread around the internet.

It said it would still benefit because the resulting discussion would "generate future recruitment enquiries".

However, it added that anyone who had previously hacked illegally would be ineligible. The agency's website also states that applicants must be British citizens.


The move was hinted at two months ago when Prime Minister David Cameron presented his government's response to the Intelligence and Security Committee's annual report.

The document noted the committee had concerns about GCHQ's "inability to retain a suitable cadre of internet specialists" to respond to cyber threats.

It said that the Cabinet Office supported "initiatives such as the Cyber Security Challenge, which promotes careers in cyber security via annual competitions and events".

Screen shot of the code breaking challenge Anyone who breaks the code will be invited to apply for a job

Following this the government announced last week that it would set up a specialist department within GCHQ.

The Joint Cyber Unit will concentrate on tackling the growing threat of cyber attacks from organised criminals, terrorists, hostile states and hacktivists.


GCHQ claimed that this was the first time this sort of challenge had ever been conducted by an organisation to target these sorts of skills.

However, the agency has used unusual recruitment methods in the past.

In 2009, it placed video content, themes and downloadable pictures on the Xbox Live network which appeared during Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and other video games.

Two years earlier, it targeted gamers by placing digital posters in online titles including Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas and Splinter Cell Double Agent.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Looks like the time has run out. The web page has "var austDay = new Date(2011, 12 - 1, 1, 0, 1, 0);" which makes the "time remaining" value expire today.

    We're all too late to get a job as a spook.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    A lot of cynics on today. Nice idea GCHQ. I hope you get what you want, however, you'll need to something about the poor salaries on offer down there at the Doughnut..

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The main reason Microsoft switched from DOS to higher level languages was the difficulty in finding good DOS programmers as the market expanded, C, C++ etc and Windows 3.1

    The market moved from the stonemason to the brickie as demand grew.
    Nowadays higher level stuff could be described as a move from brickies to easy build bolt together kit-houses.

    Mass production needs simplified labour skills

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Hmmm Nice to see that GCHQ watch a bit of television sci fi in their spare time, the code in a game was the basic premise of StarGate: Universe. Problem is GCHQ is so far behind the times they will end up with not 1 or 10 Eli Wallace's (the character on the programme) but will end up with 1/2 the online community able to crack it. LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Perhaps I'll think about this again on Systems Programmers' Christmas (Halloween).

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    they're looking for people with particular analytical skills

    At a higher level they go hand in hand

    You can't put in what God left out and a good analytic needs other skills.
    Learning good machine code skills literally takes years, it's an amazing massive subject.

    The only alternative is higher level languages and banks of microchips working up to 100 times slower than pure machine code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This is nothing new. During the war, a cryptic crossword competition was sponsored by Bletchley Park code breaking centre to identify possible recruits. Even with the latest supercomputers, the human brain has a way of thinking laterally to join up seemingly unconnected sequences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    They pinched the idea from Stargate Universe!

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    12. PRISS
    "brilliant idea, but the calculable risks behind this recruitment are beyond measure"

    So the calculable risks are incalculable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    just don't link anything you don't want people to know or control to the internet or store it in a computer.
    card index systems work. or even better, human memory map systems.
    In any conflict one has to assume the internet, mobile and grid networks will be the first things to go down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Nice way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Sounds pretty imaginative to me. Good luck to them, As to the sneering cracks about 'upper-class twits from Oxbridge', couldn't you find a somewhat more innovative way of being derisory? Surely that knee-jerk reverse snobbery reaction has been done to death by now??

    And no, before you say it - my father was a tube train driver and I graduated from the University of Bath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @14. Ady

    Thats simply not true. I am doing Electrical Engineering at Glasgow Uni and we have had some Machine Code stuff quite a few times. Not massively in depth though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Coogan - to say "the vast majority of people have made the subtle paradigm shift towards positive, healthy development in 'trusting others' and prefer transparency" seems hugely optimistic when analysing the state of relationships between many countries. I imagine spying is hardly a dying activity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This idea was cool in the 1980's when people did adverts in machine code to attract bright candidates. It was even cool when Google did it several years ago. Now, not so much. Fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @34 48 245 73 489
    xdcfgr vbfgtres rfd yt i gbvdfer
    ips ghfrt tres

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    given how poorly the uk protects such rare assets who to say anyone else also won't be found zipped up in a holdall in the bath. If you work for state cyber security you will be on the top list of assets for other states with less human rights about them to either corrupt or 'nullify'. So people should be aware they are making a big sacrifice that will affect their freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I left GCHQ having had a salary of £25k in expensive Cheltenham for ~£60k in the private sector.

    The problem for GCHQ is not that the skills aren't out there, or that people don't want to work there. It's that the gov don't put their money where their mouth is.

    We wouldn't think of paying a lawyer in the public sector £31k - why do we think we can get world class cyber security expert for it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Ady:I imagine that they're not looking for people with particular programming language skills, but people with specific analytical skills (and they can then be taught to code if necessary). Your assertion that it's a dangerous business is spot-on, I'm sure, although your comment about "upper class twits" from Oxbridge (and no, I'm not from that demographic) is too much of a generalisation, surely.


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