Daniel Swann is exactly the type of person the National Security Agency (NSA) would love to have working for it. A fourth-year concurrent bachelors-masters student at Johns Hopkins University, the 22-year-old has a bright future in cybersecurity.
And growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, not far from the NSA’s headquarters, Swann thought he might work at the agency, which intercepts phone calls, emails and other so-called “signals intelligence” from U.S. adversaries.
“When I was a senior in high school I thought I would end up working for a defense contractor or the NSA itself,” says Swann. Then, in 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a treasure-trove of top-secret documents. They showed that the agency’s programs to collect intelligence were far more sweeping than Americans realized.
After Snowden’s revelations, Swann’s thinking changed. The NSA’s tactics, which include retaining data from American citizens, raise too many questions in his mind: “I can’t see myself working there,” he says, “partially because of these moral reasons.”
This year, the NSA needs to find 1,600 new recruits. Hundreds of them must come from highly specialized fields like computer science and mathematics. So far, it says, the agency has been successful. But with its popularity down, and pay from wealthy Silicon Valley companies way up, agency officials concede that recruitment is a worry. If enough students follow Daniel Swann, then one of the world’s most powerful spy agencies could lose its edge.