Title: Interview with an SID “Hacker” — Part 2: Hacker Culture and Worker Retention
Release Date: 2015-06-11
Document Date: 2012-07-13
Description: This 12 July 2012 post from the NSA newsletter SIDToday describes the internal culture of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) from the perspective of a practitioner: see the Intercept article What the Snowden Files Say About the Osama Bin Laden Raid, 18 May 2015.
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Welcome! Saturday, 10 Nov 2012
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(U//FOUO) Interview with a SID "Hacker" — Part 2: Hacker Culture and Worker
FROM: the SlDtoday Editor
Run Date: 07/13/2012
(U//FOUO) Here's the conclusion of SID/r*/av's 2-part interview with TAO's I
(pictured). If you missed it. you can find part 1 here.
3. (U) What kind of people gravitate to this kind of work?
(U) Hackers, geeks, nerds! The people in TAO arc very interesting. There's an annual
event for hackers in Las Vegas called DEFCON, and many of us attend. When there, we
feel as though we arc among our brcthcrcn! We all have a similar mindset of wanting to
tear things apart, to dig in. to see how things work. Here in TAO. the atmosphere is
casual. You'll see people in shorts, tee-shirts, flip-flops, black clothes. There is a DEF
CON feel to the place.
(U//FOUO) The skills we arc after arc technical. The people in the ROC have hacker
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When those former network admins arc hired and we put them to work in TAO. there's a
mental shift that takes place as they switch from playing defense to offense, but they
have the knowledge they need. There arc some really great R&T analysts who came here
with S2 and SIGDEV backgrounds, but those with network admin experience have the
4. (U) Aren't the skills needed for CNE highly marketable on the "outside"? If so,
is it hard for the government to attract and retain those workers?*
(S//SI//REL) There arc tw o sides to it. On the positive side, the job is amazing and
awesome! We do things that you can't do anywhere else in the country... at least not
legally. We arc gainfully employed to hack computers owned by al-Qa'ida! I was even
involved in the operation against UBL [Usama bin Laden| — how' many people can say
they were involved in something like that? We get great job satisfaction. CNE is
enabling kinetic [i.e.. bullets, bombs, missiles, ctc.j operations against bad people on a
regular basis. We also get immediate feedback, which means instant gratification, shared
by everyone on the team. Also, the people we work with arc good. As I mentioned, we
feel as though we arc among brcthcrcn. All of these factors make people reluctant to
(U//FOUO) Now on the other hand, there are lures to leave. It's not the highest-paying
job. especially for developers who can write exploits that arc worth a lot of money on
the open market. Even locally — within just the Washington. DC. metro area — people
could probably make more money. Another factor is that the people who arc close to
active operations — in R&T and the ROC. for example — arc civilians or military, not
contractors. That is because the jobs they do arc considered an inherently governmental
function, not something that is appropriate for contract work. Many young people have
more of a short-term mentality than the older generations, and they don't necessarily
w ant or expect to stay in the same job w ith the same employer for an extended period of
(U) ...Do TAO "hackers" feel uneasy about the fact that they work for the
government? Do they feel restricted?
(U//FOUO) I think some people do chafe a bit at government restrictions, but overall I
don't think it is a big problem. We train people to make things happen and to not let
bureaucracy stand in the way. If necessary, we'll get management involved, and they arc
very supportive of us. We arc a very high-priority mission and management really looks
out for us and makes problems go away. They arc willing to convey a sense of urgency
to all involved that we need to ’get it done."
(U) ...Do you have the workers in tee shirts on one side and managers in suits on the
other? Is there a big cultural divide?
(U) Actually. I think the managers get absorbed into the "hacker" culture! I remember
we had a new manager join us and he wore a suit for a w hile, but eventually he started
dressing more casually like the rest of us.
(seated) among the "hretheren' at a hackers convention.
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3. tu; iou ve spotten 01 some oi ine uesi aspects 01 tne jou. nat are ine worst
(S//SI//REL) One negative would be the long hours that people in TAO need to work,
and the times arc often inconvenient. For example.analysts arc often working here
at midnight, because we have to work when our targets arc active. Also, in CT we arc
often on call, and might even be called in during holidays. Those are sacrifices you have
to be willing to make. Also.^|^^ Building [which is home to most of the TAO
workforce] isn't the best building. The cafeteria is relatively small and not open after-
hours, although they did add some vending machines recently with sandwiches and
wraps. The parking at m is somewhat better than tlie^^| however.
6. (U) What has been the most nerve-wracking moment of your career so far? ...the
(U//FOUO) I'd say they were the same event: the UBL takedown. I was brought in early
on. months in advance. I was told. "We think UBL is in this compound - how can you
help?" In the prep stages, one of the NSA primary' analysts was flown to Afghanistan
and even DIRNSA wras involved. During the actual raid [by Navy SEALS], the [TAO]
CT employees were all here on chat rooms following the events. When we heard that the
helicopter had crashed, tliat was a "Whao, wiiat just happened??" moment. Were lives
lost? Then when we heard "Jackpot!" there was a moment of great jubilation. It was
awesome! We w'ere all pleased that we could make a direct contribution to this success
-- something we will remember for the rest of our lives.**
7. (U) Is there anything else you think people should know about TAO?
(U//FOUO) I tliink a lot of people in SID don't fully understand what w'e can do — they
believe we arc focused only on a few' particular missions. But that's really not the case.
We are the technical experts on CNE [computer-network exploitation]. and we can apply
those skills to all missions — against every target that uses computer networks. So, I
hope people will keep in mind that w-e can support everyone.
* (U//FOUO) See a Tapioca Pebble on a related theme: "Best w>av to retain highly in-
demand tcclmical employees?"
** (U//FOUO) related another thrilling event from his career at a SID town
hall meeting last year. You can see it in this video, starting at the 29:50 mark.)
Conuncnts/Suggcstions about this article?
(U//FOUO) SIDtoday articles may not be republished or
reposted outside NSANct without the consent of S0121
Last Modified: 11/10/2012 / Last Reviewed: 11/10/2012
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