Canadian Security Magazine

‘Big Brother vibes’: Spy agency ditches job ads after mixed reviews from focus groups

The Canadian Press   

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Canada’s cyberspy agency has changed course on proposed recruitment efforts after focus groups found job ads had too much of a “Big Brother vibe.”

The Communications Security Establishment spent just over $56,000 earlier this year on research from Earnscliffe Strategy Group that explored reactions to various branding concepts, including graphic designs that featured big camera lenses.

Some focus group participants told the researchers that the agency’s logo in the middle of a lens evoked “surveillance, a Big Brother vibe, and that CSE is always watching.”

One mid-career professional quipped: “It’s like in the movies, the eye that’s watching everyone, like we’re being tracked.”


Watching certainly forms a large part of the agency’s activities.

But the dubious feedback led to a “new creative approach” that addresses the more negative perceptions and tries to better explain the agency’s role in “protecting Canada and keeping Canadians safe,” a spokesman said in a statement.

Earnscliffe also gently advised the agency that participants, which included a gaggle of university students, were “lukewarm” on the spooks’ proposed tagline and “did not feel it was all that inspiring.”

“A mission that matters” fell a little flat, a spokesman said, because the CSE’s target audience had a limited understanding of its mission — to secure and protect Canada’s information technology and analyze foreign signals intelligence.

After going back to the drawing board, the agency decided to play up the mystery.

This fall, the spokesman said, CSE will launch a recruitment campaign that brands itself as “The most important organization you’ve never heard of.”

As part of its efforts to identify foreign activities that could threaten Canada’s “national prosperity and security,” CSE is looking to hire people from diverse backgrounds, the statement said.

That’s why Chinese language ads were specifically tested with focus groups: “We determined it would be sensible to advertise job postings to Canadians whose first language might not necessarily be English, including Chinese Canadians.”

In the recent past, the Canadian government has called public attention to “irresponsible state-sponsored cyber activity” carried out by Chinese state actors, including for the purposes of stealing intellectual property and personal information.

The ad concepts that CSE ultimately rejected were replete with oranges and teals and one of them included a “wireframe face” that participants thought was cool and “futuristic.”

“I like it, honestly. Because instead of actual humans in the picture, there’s like a technological-looking figure. And I feel like that comes into play with like, what the actual job description would be,” one participant said.

Another concept that did include a photo of an actual human was panned because it seemed out of line with the job description: “The image of a woman with a full smile, using a pen and paper, was the opposite of what they would expect of the agency that oversees cybersecurity.”

Back in 2016, the playful tagline proffered by CSE at a government job fair was: “Can you keep a secret?”

That year, recruiters descended upon Montreal Comiccon, where they hoped to bump into tech-savvy students.

The bureaucrats were not allowed to dress up in costumes, CSE told media at the time, so the agency provided them with branded sunglasses that they wore indoors.

The agency now says it has grown significantly in the years since, though it makes no mention today of whether the sleek-looking accessories may have played a role.

Unlike many workplaces during the pandemic, CSE has seen a 20 per cent increase in staff since 2019, bringing its workforce to about 3,200 full-time employees.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2022.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2022.

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