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Report: NSA Cyber Security Staff Exiting in Brain Drain Numbers

NSA Veteran Ellison Anne Williams
NSA Veteran Ellison Anne Williams

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) top cyber security talent, including hackers, engineers and data scientists, are reportedly exiting at an alarming rate for better paying jobs in the private sector. The brain-drain body slam to national cyber security could be serious, according to a new report.

What's going on? In the last two years, hundreds of key cyber security personnel have departed the spy agency, the Washington Post reported, citing knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials. Some of the fleeing talent monitored North Korean and Russian cyber gangsters and others gathered information on state sponsored hacking, the Post said.

While NSA officials declined to reveal how many jobs are unfilled, the agency’s number of hackers who scan for cyber attacks is said to have dwindled by about nine percent.

“Some synonym of the word ‘epidemic’ is the best way to describe it,” Ellison Anne Williams, a former NSA senior researcher, told the media outlet. “The agency is losing an amazing amount of its strongest technical talent, and to lose your best and brightest staff is a huge hit,” she reportedly said.

The worrisome volume of cyber security specialists bolting from the NSA has apparently caught the attention of Michael Rogers, the agency’s director. As the Post tells it, Roger, in remarks at a national security conference last September, said: “If the price of security becomes that we drive away the very men and women that generate value in the first place, we now have a self-induced mission kill.”

That’s some bold words right there but evidently consistent with complaints voiced by ex-staffers. According to the Post's report, some have grumbled about a controversial restructuring that gutted whole departments, others fussed about product procurement, and then, of course, there’s the pedestrian wages.

But really, is it any wonder the agency is shedding cyber security experts, considering the number of missteps it’s taken in the last two years and the suspicion it’s engendered since former contractor Edward Snowden infamously disclosed some of its inner workings?

Here’s the short list of what’s also roiled the NSA:

  • Some 100 gigabytes of classified files together belonging to the NSA Defense Department Command and the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) somehow showed up online for anyone to see.
  • NSA officials still can't identify the Shadow Brokers, the mysterious hackers who began stealing NSA spy tools last year and have taunted the agency ever since. Remember, it’s pilfered NSA kits that catalyzed the destructive WannaCry ransomware outbreak last May.
  • And, word surfaced last October that an NSA insider slipped classified material out from the agency’s network and stored it on an unsecured personal computer. The data was subsequently lifted by Russia-backed cyber attackers.

Keep in mind that the NSA is losing security pros in the midst of a yawning cyber security skills gap, in which hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs are open but qualified candidates are few. Cybersecurity Ventures pegs the number of open cyber security jobs in the U.S. at 1.5 million by 2019, with the unemployment rate in the sector remaining at 0 percent through 2021.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.