Why I chose not to work for the NSA

I got a job offer from the National Security Agency. Yes, the NSA. I might have had the opportunity to do some interesting work there, but I chose not to work for the NSA because I was concerned I might be asked to do something I’d find objectionable. It seems I made the right choice.

I had just gotten a master’s degree in information security from Carnegie Mellon University. I didn’t want to apply to the NSA, but they were recruiting heavily. Because I had gone to school on a CyberCorps Scholarship for Service I had an obligation to work for the government after graduation, so I begrudgingly sent my resume to the NSA.

I actually told the NSA recruiter about my reluctance. I said I was afraid I’d be asked to spy on someone I didn’t think deserved to be spied on. She said I could focus on Information Assurance jobs.

The NSA has two main divisions: Information Assurance (IA) and Signals Intelligence (SI). IA focuses on protecting the U.S. government’s data. SI does the spying on others. I decided I could be comfortable working in IA.

As I went through the evaluations–which included multiple interviews, a psych exam and two polygraph tests (because I failed the first one)–I learned more about the NSA hiring process. They offer a single position to multiple candidates. Those who accept go through the security clearance process. Whoever’s clearance passes first gets that position. Those whose clearance process takes longer get reassigned. That is, there is no guarantee as to what job you are going to get.

I would be uncomfortable with that level of uncertainty in any job offer but particular at a place such as the NSA where I was uncomfortable with half of their mission. Instead I accepted a job at the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Yes, I chose to be an auditor instead of a spy. That’s pretty unsexy, but in light of recent revelations about the PRISM program (that you can read about here) and the collection of phone records (that you can read about here) I’m pretty happy with my decision.

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