Google, Amazon and Microsoft are robbing the world of potential spies with exorbitant salaries and ‘fun’ offices. Doesn’t anyone prize espionage over cash these days? For shame!
By Duncan Gardham
Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, the intelligence agency responsible for listening into the chatter of foreign spies and terrorists, has said he can offer his staff a “fantastic mission” but struggles with salaries.
Some of the most challenging work that GCHQ undertakes is to fight off cyber attacks by foreign intelligence agencies such as China and Russia that are targeting gas, water and electricity suppliers in Britain, according to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.
In comments carried in the committee’s annual report, Mr Lobban said: “I need some real internet whizzes in order to do cyber and I am not even sure they are even on the contractor market, so I need to work on that.
“They will be working for Microsoft or Google or Amazon or whoever. And I can’t compete with their salaries. I can offer them a fantastic mission, but I can’t compete with their salaries.
“I probably have to do better than I am doing at the moment, or else my internet whizzes are not going to stay… and we do have a steady drip, I am afraid.
“Month-on-month, we are losing whizzes who’ll basically say: ‘I’m sorry, I am going to take three times the salary and the car and whatever else’.”
GCHQ hired 491 new staff last year, raising numbers to 5,675, but also had 297 contractors at a total cost of £43.1m.
Each contractor cost an average of £145,138 a year compared with an average cost of £44,534 a year for a full-time GCHQ employee.
The committee said they were concerned about GCHQ’s inability to retain a “suitable cadre of internet specialists to respond to the threat” and urged the agency to investigate whether a system of bonuses for specialist skills should be introduced.
GCHQ also uses a large number of Ministry of Defence officials but the committee said it was concerned that they did not have enough and the Armed Forces signals intelligence in Afghanistan could suffer as a result.
It also said there was a shortage of linguists with rare languages and that all three intelligence agencies had set up a joint language centre at MI5 to train more.
The director of GCHQ said he might also have to change the agency’s requirement that it only hires British nationals in order to get round the problem.
GCHQ has been unable to account for equipment worth £1m – said to have been taken to Afghanistan and Iraq over a number of years but not noted in records.
The agency admitted that up to 450 items, amounting to five per sent of the total missing, could pose a threat to national security.
The committee said it expected GCHQ to “ensure that the situation does not arise again.”
In a briefing to the committee, GCHQ said the greatest threat of electronic attack continued to be posed by state actors and Russia and China were suspected of carrying out the majority of attacks.
Sir John Sawers, the chief of MI6, said he would visit China once a year to “build up the relationship and develop the understanding that will be required for the decades ahead.”
But the committee warned that espionage capability “could be used to do other things if they needed to” and the committee said there was a concern that the capability could be turned towards interrupting the supply of utility services.
The report said the threat to British interests from espionage “remains high” and the commercial sector as well as government, defence and security interests are at risk from traditional espionage and through cyber space.
“Several major countries are actively targeting UK information and material to enhance their own military, technological, political and economic programmes,” it added.
Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5 told the committee in February that the amount of surveillance the service was undertaking with police colleagues “was the highest at any point that we have ever had to put out on the streets.”
The activity is thought to be a response to the threat of a Mumbai-style attack by al-Qaeda reported at the end of last year.
MI5 plans to recruit an extra 100 intelligence officers for the Olympics but will still have to divert up to 200 from other activities and the committee warned that it was a matter of “very serious concern” that the Olympics would divert resources from the service’s other work.
MI6 said the threat at the moment was “broadly contained” but warned that there would be a “surge” in counter-terrorism activity in the six to nine months running up to the Olympics.
“[It] will certainly have an impact on our intelligence operations and intelligence coverage of other targets during that period,” officials told the committee.
The core group of al-Qaeda in Pakistan continues to pose the most serious threat to the Britain and MI5 said that was “likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.”
However it also said the threat had diversified and the percentage of priority plots and leads which are linked to Pakistan has dropped from around 75 per cent in 2008 and 2009 to around 50 per cent now.
The death of Osama bin Laden was described by MI5 as being “a key milestone in the defeat of al-Qaeda” and to have affected the “morale and cohesion of Al-Qaeda Core, its affiliate groups and the global jihad more generally.”
They described him as an “inspirational figurehead” to his followers but warned: “Individuals may be encouraged or inspired to avenge Osama bin Laden’s death… and Al-Qaeda Core’s operational arm will continue to plot international attacks in the longer term.”
As a result MI6 is re-opening some stations around the world and opening new stations in other areas.
Sir Peter Ricketts, the National Security Adviser, told the committee that the challenge for the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, was to maintain coverage in as wide a range of countries as possible, “given that threats are very fleet footed at the moment, and they need to be able to turn on intelligence coverage in places like Somalia or Yemen or the [sub-Saharan] Sahel or the Maghreb [in North Africa] as the threat moves.”