France’s directorate-general for external security (DGSE), the country’s equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency and UK MI6, is seeking to recruit geeks rather than James Bond, its technical director Patrick Pailloux has said.
In a rare public intervention, Pailloux told Agence France-Presse he believed there was a danger many tech-savvy young French citizens didn’t consider themselves suitable spies given stereotypes of the country’s intelligence services, such as those popularised by smash-hit TV drama Le Bureau des Legendes (known as Le Bureau outside France).
“We need people who are very connected to new technologies – thus young people. We have to bring them into the DGSE, it’s essential. [Young people] have James Bond and the special forces in their heads. They think, 'I am not Rambo, I am a geek’, and it doesn’t occur to them to enter the DGSE. But it’s not only supermen who are supercharged. If you are supercharged in science then you can also serve your country. Cybersecurity is the alpha and omega of global security in the world we live in. If we’re not able to make our systems safe then all other security is useless,” he said.
Matthieu Lequesne of the National Research Institute for Digital Science and Technology (INRIA), and one of the co-organisers of the competition, said “behind the maths, logic, computer science, the stakes are political”.
“If we want to take advantage of artificial intelligence, for big data to work it has to deal with tonnes of data that belong to individuals,” he said. “And we have to make sure that the platforms that handle this data don’t learn anything about us. So the way to respond is good cryptography,” he explained.
Digitally savvy is likely to be even more crucial in the changed, post-coronavirus world in which communication would be increasingly virtual, and less ‘in-person’. However, DGSE has more generally failed to attract high quality applicants in recent years - in May, it was announced a large recruitment drive intended to grow the agency’s size to 8,500 by 2022 had foundered as the quality of respondents was abysmal, with cndidates’ grasp of geopolitics and espionage alike said to be “markedly limited”, spelling and grammatical errors rampant, and “critical shortcomings” identified in a vast number of areas - some candidates even appeared for interviews severely under-prepared, their level of knowledge “unacceptable for someone wishing to join the ranks of the DGSE”.