How the NSA is recruiting the next generation of cyber spies

The spooks are looking for a few good geeks -- and they're doing it on places like TechCrunch

cyberspiesImage credit: flickr/Surian Soosay

This morning I was reading a TechCrunch story about Google’s official explanation for those “mystery barges” that keep cropping up in various harbors. There’s been a fair amount of speculation about the purpose of these containers, first reported by CNET’s Daniel Terdiman a week ago. Could they be offshore data centers? Nautical disaster recovery modules? Seaworthy stores for Google Glass Geeks? Or something more sinister?

Inevitably, rumors floated (ahem) they were either secret NSA listening posts being built with the help of Google, or the search giant’s way of keeping spooks from tapping its networks.

The official explanation was far less exciting. A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch the barges are “an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.”

Yeah. Like anybody would believe that. 

See the USA with the NSA

Then I looked to the right of the story, where I found the following Flash-based advertisement.

ty4ns-discover nsa ad.png

Yes, that’s right. The National Security Agency is deliberately recruiting TechCrunch readers. This isn’t a random ad that changes every time the page loads. I’ve tried it on three different machines. The NSA (or its agency) bought this space directly from TechCrunch, most likely via an intermediary like

Clicking the ad launches an electro-disco soundtrack that would have sounded right at home in a corporate sales presentation circa 1998.  As words fly in and out of the screen via a variety of Powerpoint-style transition effects, you hear a serious-sounding female voice:

“What you know can make a difference at the National Security Agency.

Whether it's collecting foreign intelligence or preventing our adversaries from hacking US secrets, what you know can protect the nation.

Explore our many technical career fields, paid internships, and co-op and scholarship opportunities to see how you fit in at NSA.

With a career at NSA, you'll realize just how much knowing matters.”

Another version of the ad features a male voice, presumably that of some NSA geek who is thrilled to have landed a job inside the Industrial Surveillance Complex. He goes on thusly:

“There are activities that I've worked on that make, you know, front page headlines. And I can say, I know all about that, I had a hand in that. The things that happen here at NSA really have national and world ramifications.”

Ya think?

Apparently, all those Snowden revelations haven’t dampened the NSA’s ardor for geeks, let alone improved its ability to recognize irony. Or maybe the spooks believe the Snowden stories actually help it recruit candidates. After all, if you’re going to spy on millions of law-abiding citizens around the world, you probably want employees who think that’s a fantastic idea.

Knowing matters

The company behind these videos is Spongecell, which does interactive ads for a wide range of clients including Arby’s, Microsoft, Florida Orange Juice, and Girl Scouts of America. Their Web site sports an alphabetized gallery of nearly 400 interactive ads created for clients ranging from Amazon to Zulily.

Interestingly, though, the NSA ad is not among them. Maybe Spongecell has been asked by the spooks to keep that on the DL. Or maybe they’re just embarrassed by it.

Spongecell is, however, big into zombies, creating ads for both AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and World War Z comics.

ty4ns-spongecell zombies-550p.png

Brains -- they’re not just for breakfast any more

Now get ready to strap on your tin foil hat. Spongecell got a big chunk of funding from none other than former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

You see where I’m going with this. The NSA, zombies, and Google. All together in one place. Coincidence? I think not.

Now, of course, I’ve just spent all morning running and rerunning those ads on different computers, visiting the NSA’s site, and installing its iPad app (yes, the NSA has apps). If I wasn’t on their radar before, I certainly am now.

So if I suddenly disappear, you’ll know why. Whether it will be spooks or zombies is unclear. I put the odds at 50/50.

Update: Cartoonist Mark Fiore has created a mock NSA recruiting ad for kids that is remarkably like the ones the NSA actually uses. You can see it here.

Update Part Deux: I spoke with Spongecell CEO Ben Kartzman after this post appeared. He says his firm did deliver the ad, but is only responsible for the interactivity built into it -- the links to Web sites, Facebook, iTunes Store, etc. -- not the content or placement of the ad. I also contacted TechCrunch's ad representative, but he has yet to respond.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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