Pay peanuts, get monkeys

So the spooks are yet again try­ing to recruit IT pro­fes­sion­als. MI6 is cur­rently advert­ising for a, quote, “world class enter­prise archi­tect”, but is offer­ing a salary sig­ni­fic­antly below the mar­ket rate. MI5 is con­stantly on the lookout for IT staff –as recent adverts in the press will attest.

My sense is that the agen­cies are still des­per­ately play­ing IT catch-up. In the 1990s, when I worked as an intel­li­gence officer, we were still writ­ing out everything longhand and get­ting our sec­ret­ar­ies to type it up – with all the attend­ant typos, revi­sions and delays. Inform­a­tion data­bases, such the sys­tem code­named Durbar, which held the ter­ror­ist records, could only be accessed via 1970s, beige, mon­it­or-and-key­board, all-in-one computers.

In the early 1990s MI5 did try to devel­op its own inform­a­tion man­age­ment sys­tem from scratch, rightly think­ing that buy­ing off-the-shelf from an Amer­ic­an mega­corp was prob­ably not good secur­ity. How­ever, MI5 man­age­ment still thought IT was a low pri­or­ity – des­pite the fact the effi­cient pro­cessing of inform­a­tion should have been the core work. So, the agency paid sig­ni­fic­antly below the mar­ket rates for IT pro­fes­sion­als, and pos­ted main­stream intel­li­gence officers, with no pro­ject man­age­ment exper­i­ence, to run the depart­ment for 2 year peri­ods. Need­less to say, mor­al was rock-bot­tom. The IT bods were unmo­tiv­ated, the IOs demor­al­ised at being pos­ted to a career grave­yard slot and the unwieldy sys­tem, code­named Grant, nev­er got off the ground.

In the middle of the dec­ade MI5 in des­per­a­tion bought an off-the-shelf pack­age which was based on Win­dows 95. Even then officers had to fight to have access to a ter­min­al to do their work. And, of course, Win­dows is not known as the most stable or secure sys­tem avail­able. I also heard recently that MI5 is still using this pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware, and thinks that it can pro­tect its inform­a­tion sys­tems by patch­ing up secur­ity prob­lems. It gives one such faith that MI5 can really pro­tect this coun­try from ter­ror­ist attack.

But this leads us onto a more ser­i­ous issue regard­ing our nation­al sov­er­eignty. What the hell is our gov­ern­ment doing, shov­el­ling bil­lions of pounds every year over to US IT com­pan­ies to pay for licences that then per­mit our gov­ern­ment depart­ments to use their soft­ware pack­ages? And with the cur­rent con­cerns about ter­ror­ism and the sub­sequent datamin­ing activ­it­ies of a para­noid US admin­is­tra­tion, how can we be sure that the NSA is not sneak­ing a peek at the work of our secur­ity forces via back doors in this software?

So, to pro­tect our sov­er­eignty, as well as devel­op our know­ledge base and grow our eco­nomy, why does the UK gov­ern­ment not encour­age all gov­ern­ment agen­cies and depart­ments to switch from pro­pri­et­ary to open source soft­ware? After all, many oth­er coun­tries around the world are already doing this for pre­cisely these reasons.

No doubt it’s that pesky “spe­cial rela­tion­ship” kick­ing in again.….

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