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The Unusual Suspects: A Good Cryptographer Is Hard to Find

Earlier this year, the structure of an enzyme in an HIV-related monkey virus was solved in three weeks by internet gamers. It was a feel-good victory of human intelligence over disease, and a reminder of the awesome power of the internet.

The New York Times published a similar article a few days ago. In a slightly controversial move, British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters posted a puzzle online and directed people who solved it to apply for a job at GCHQ.  It’s reminiscent of the Bruce Willis movie Mercury Rising and seems like an elegant solution to a hiring problem – the GCHQ can’t offer as much money to their cryptographers as private firms.  Also, code breaking skills can’t be that easy to find. The Times reports on what happens after you break the code:

“So you did it,” says the congratulatory message. “Now this is where it gets interesting. Could you use your skills and ingenuity to combat terrorism and cyberthreats? As one of our experts, you’ll help protect our nation’s security and the lives of thousands.” Those interested are then invited to submit a formal job application, leading to interviews for a total of 35 jobs next spring.

Cryptography has a history of reaching out to unusual suspects.  An old BBC article describes the WWII cryptography headquarters, the Government Code and Cypher School:

Chess masters, mathematicians, academics, crossword experts and linguists were drafted in to what was affectionately known to those who lived there as the Golf, Cheese and Chess Society.

The deadline for solving the GCHQ puzzle is December 11 (today!). But only British citizens are eligible for employment.