The National Security Agency's recruiting department posted what seemed to be a load of gibberish on Twitter Monday, causing Twitter users to speculate whether the NSA's recruiting officers were drunk or accidentally posted a pocket tweet. It turns out the tweet is a coded message.
— NSA (@NSACareers) May 5, 2014
For the untrained eye, the letters look like they were placed in a random jumble. However, a cryptographer will notice that the tweet does not look like it was made by someone smashing on the keyboard. Each letter block has exactly 12 letters, except for the third block, which has a question mark that could indicate an extra clue, and the last block, which has eight letters and a period.
Alas, for those of you who are hoping it was a special set of instructions for secret agents, the cryptic tweet is actually part of the NSA's campaign to hire cryptographers and would-be code-breakers.
Looking closely at the tweet, one will find that certain letters, such as p, i and c, appear more frequently than others. This suggests that the code used a simple substitution cypher where each letter of the alphabet is swapped for another. In this case, t was used for w in the encrypted tweet, p for a, f for n, and c for t. The first four letters "tpfc" translates into "want."
Guessing what the other letters correspond to might take an experienced cryptographer half an hour of decoding, but a simple online tool can take only a few seconds to try thousands of letter substitutions. Twitter user Daniel Shealey referred to Edwin Olson's Quipquip, which took only six seconds to break the code, although with a small error.
The message reads: "Want to know what it takes to work at NSA? Check back each Monday to explore careers essential to protect our nation."
NSA confirmed that it is the source of the message.
"NSA is known as the code makers and code breakers. As part of our recruitment efforts to attract the best and the brightest, we will post mission-related coded tweets on Mondays in the month of May," writes NSA spokesperson Marci Green Miller.
Anticlimactic, yes, but at least it wasn't "Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine!"
This is not the first time NSA has used unusual recruitment strategies. In 2011, the national spy agency, along with other federal agencies, descended upon Las Vegas to attend the annual Defcon hacker conference looking to hire around 1,500 "cybersecurity experts."