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.….