The Spy Who Didn’t Love Themselves

Paul Symon, the outgoing Director General of ASIS (the Australian Secret Intelligence Service) recently commented on the recruitment challenge in finding the next generation of spies.

He said that ASIS looked for a high IQ and high EQ – but also for people who were balanced. They need to be comfortable in their own skin, he explained. Their job, for one thing, is to identify local sources of information or, in the language of security services, ‘assets.’ They must be people who can build trust and confidence because the people that spies recruit locally, are immediately at risk.

Crucially, said Mr Symon, they must have a low ego. They must be quiet achievers because they can never crow to others about their successes.

How does ASIS begin to find these rare creatures called quiet achievers?

We find out, he said, to what extent is the centrality of their identity and personality, the focus of their social media interaction? Or in plain language, how much crowing are they doing on social media?

I fear that a lot of people do not understand what ‘crowing’ means or see it as an unattractive quality. Modesty, humility, and a respect for basic privacy are alien to so many social media users. Platforms can become cluttered with humble bragging, virtue signalling, posing, and over-sharing.

And in fairness to the average job seeker, the recruitment industry has been telling people to brand themselves and crow (or boast) for a long time. Change one fact about yourself every month, a recruiter told me, and it will be picked up by the algorithm and raise your profile. When modesty goes up against the need to pay a mortgage, it is no surprise which one wins.  

But back to the need for spies, the Australian Signals Directorate is also looking for 1900 recruits to work in cyber security. This is primarily to increase our defences against hackers and scammers. A good recruitment test, according to the ASD, is, can you keep a secret?

I can’t help imagining the recruit that accidentally gets through, who cannot resist crowing on social media and just cannot keep a secret.  

Picture the selfie in active wear, with the words, ‘Just ran through the jungle last night. So privileged to be a part of a great night raid at the harbour! Or the posting of a qualification with ‘My certificate in code breaking has come through!’  Perhaps we would see a Linked In balloon template with ‘Celebrating two years undercover in the Solomons’ or a team photo, with ‘a shout out to the amazing new local assets: Dewi, Som, Izzati and Murni. So awesome to be on this intelligence gathering journey with you.’  Imagine if the new spy did not switch off the Facebook function telling everyone they were ‘interested in attending an event’ near the Chinese embassy.

So why apply for this dangerous, discreet work if bragging rights and over sharing are off the table? Ben Macintyre has views on this, from his excellent book, The Spy and the Traitor. He suggests that a degree of intellectual snobbery is common in spies. They love the secret sense of knowing important things unknown to the person standing next to them at the bus stop.

And of course, there is romance, a word rarely used in recruitment. Macintyre writes that this is the opportunity to live a second, hidden life. This could also be sold to applicants as follows; you only live twice.

2 thoughts on “The Spy Who Didn’t Love Themselves”

  1. All that experience on “L”, “M”, and “T” desks was a great intro’ into learning many languages. And those Christmas parties attended by the PM of the time, even though we were strictly a statutory body and impartial to any political party, were a nightmare, especially when Special Branch took to the floor. But that was more than 40 years ago now, so thank goodness we can all talk about it now. Such a relief after all these years of self-deprecating quiet achievement.

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