Can you keep a secret? Going to ComicCon might help you break into Canada’s spy business

OTTAWA — Do you enjoy going to ComicCon? What about giveaway or free popcorn? More importantly: can you keep a ?

Then a job as a digital spy might just be for you. Or, at least, what the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has in mind as it seeks the best and brightest techies.

An old-fashioned popcorn machine and free pairs of CSE-branded shades were part of the display at a government job fair Thursday at Shaw Centre.

At the event, where the hashtag #secureyourfuture was prominently displayed, other agencies — including Safety Canada, the Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Forces, the Correctional Service of Canada and the Canada Border Security Agency — competed to woo curious job-hunters, more than one of whom was spotted eating a banana.

Though the Royal Canadian Mounted Police displayed Batman-like combat gear on a mannequin, it was, subjectively, hard to compete with CSE’s popcorn and shades.

A CSE rep explained the agency had tried recruiting at a ComicCon event for the first time in Montreal this summer — you know, because a lot of, uh, tech-savvy attend ComicCon.

The recruiters weren’t allowed to dress up like the other cosplayers, she said, so that’s why they ordered a bunch of pairs of sunglasses. (Wearing sunglasses indoors is a good way to look like you’re the Men in Black, so that’s kind of like dressing up.)

Applying for a job at CSE takes nine to 12 months, according to a recruiter who gave prospective applicants a PowerPoint presentation. Don’t tell people on Facebook though, because if you do, “you’ve just become a target right away.”

Participants had the chance to hear from an employee who helps protect government network security — even as the Canadian Forces recruitment web page was being redirected to a Chinese site. He was eager to solicit résumés.

At CSE, they do “special things with special data,” he said. “In the media, they like to be against us somehow. How many terrorist attacks have there been in the last 15 years?”

Offering no specifics, he was confident “I save lives with my keyboard,” and when that happens, “the next week you’re floating everywhere” because you’re so happy.

A CSE-branded Rubik’s Cube was your prize if you guessed how many passwords a program on the guy’s laptop could guess every second. (The answer? 1.9 million.) For fun, a volunteer created a new password on the computer and the CSE employee cracked it in a couple of seconds, shocking some in the room.

“The competition is fierce,” said one woman, eyeing a lineup of about 100 people, about a third of them in suits, trying to snag a seat in the CSIS session. Two casual young men could be heard chatting about CSI and humming its TV theme music.

It was standing room only Thursday afternoon.

During one half-hour presentation, eager folks spilled into the hallway, craning their necks to peer through wide-open doors. The presentation from a CSIS employee was not quite as loud as the pop music floating in from the hallway.

A few people muttered they thought a spy agency could afford to bring a microphone. One said, “are we spying on spies?” as others snapped photos of the PowerPoint with their smartphones.

An introductory video made CSIS work look like a TV show.

“I’ve got him,” says a fictional employee following a suspect. “He’s at the bus stop.” The editing and music implied Jack Bauer was about to appear from around a corner and de-fuse a bomb.

But, this is “not James Bond,” said one presenter. “We don’t have all the fancy tools.”

Still, most employees are covert. You can’t talk about your job at a party. “You shouldn’t be providing any information to your family members whatsoever,” said a man who said he is in charge of recruitment.

Analysis and writing are two of the most important skills, and employees come from a range of backgrounds. “Never let anybody tell you a BA in arts is not good enough,” said one of the recruiters, to the evident relief of many in the room.

Personality — the ability to build rapport with people and gain their trust — is another big piece of the puzzle. “Already, I’m at a disadvantage,” said the head recruiter man, endearing himself to everyone in the room to him. (He’s good.)

Just like at the CSE, hopefuls should note there’s a “full field investigation,” and tests for loyalty to Canada, including polygraphs — which aren’t as bad as you think, apparently — and interviews with people in the candidate’s life.

“We’re looking to see if you’re a spy or a terrorist,” said the head recruiter.

Recruits spend at least three years working as a case officer at headquarters, then can take a field placement.

Among the perks? The availability of Rosetta Stone, apparently, to hone language skills. Imagine Jack Bauer using such software, and grab another handful of popcorn.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

About Marie-Danielle Smith