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back to article GCHQ spooks' code-breaking puzzle solved

The GCHQ-set code-breaking puzzle was solved over the weekend. The signals intelligence agency last week set a puzzle at canyoucrackit.co.uk in its attempt to unearth potential recruits beyond its traditional graduate programme. Late last week it emerged that the successful completion page for the puzzle was available by a …

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Errm...

Does nobody quite get the concept of STARTING wage? Plus, the job isn't in London. A programmer in the South-East, fresh from Uni shouldn't expect to start on much more than minimum wage.

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Anonymous Coward

@Tom15

Yes, you are correct that is is a reasonable starting wage for for someone fresh from Uni.

However this asks for experience. The sort of experience which is remunerated with starting salaries of £50k+ in the private sector (who then go on to sell their skills to the public sector as outsourced partners).

Add in to the fact that this is a Public Sector job, therefore subject to wage freezes, pension hammerings etc. and you can see that it is far from appealing.

If you are an experienced and skilled information security "warrior" then you have the choice: £25k at GCHQ, with the prospect of no inflation-linked rises (so each year is effectively a pay cut) and a slow and steady rise through the ranks (depending on your non-trade skills, but more on how well you can manage teams) until you get to somewhere around £65k, in about a decade or two

or

Starting salary of £50k+ with a global firm (Logica, Detica, IBM etc) which is broadly the same job and often will be identical as HMG continues to outsource, the prospect of performance bonuses, pay rises and the ability to get salary band increases without waiting for someone to die (less so in the case of IBM....)

It is hardly surprising that GCHQ seems to lose the best they have on a regular basis....

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Anonymous Coward

Never worked in the Civil Service have you? Aside from a small yearly increase, you won't expect to get much more than that "Starting" wage ever. To get a real increase, you need to get a promotion, and that's not a "you've done well, so here you go" basis, it's a "ooh this job is available, I'll apply" type thing.

I'm also not convinced that a fresh from Uni programmer will necessarily be suited to that type of job. Experience is king, and IMHO that's something most graduates lack.

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Anonymous Coward

Missed opportunity...

... to mention it's in Her Majesty's Secret Service, too.

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WTF?

Are you kidding?

No programmer anywhere in this country works for minimum wage (~12kpa). Have look at some uk graduate job listings: http://www.thegraduate.co.uk/Programmer_jobs.html

The sort of candidate who could solve that puzzle fresh out of uni would be an exceptional CS graduate, who will be headhunted by tech companies in their final year who pay very well.

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Silver badge

Public / Private sector

"... starting salaries of £50k+ in the private sector ...pay rises and the ability to get salary band increases..."

Anyone who thinks this has not read a newspaper since 1984.

"a Public Sector job, therefore subject to wage freezes, pension hammerings etc. and you can see that it is far from appealing."

Historically, the public sector offered an excellent pension and job security, but lower pay. The private sector offered a reasonable pension, no job security but the highest pay.

The world economy changed. Private sector pensions dissappeared around 1997 to 1999. Wages dropped as labour was globalized. For well over a decade now, the public sector has held all 3 trump cards: higher average pay, lifelong job security and a guaranteed subsidized pension. Public sector workers are thus a privileged part of society and they want to protect that privilege. I don't blame them but their argument doesn't have a leg to stand on. And we just can't afford it, now or in the future.

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@Jim 59

As a public sector employee for most of my life, I agree with absolutely everything you say. If only more people were as clear-minded.

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Think you need to read a bit more than the newspapers then

Private sector pensions have by no means disappeared, especially if you're in the Executive class, although they have massively reduced. Have you not been paying attention to all those stories about banker's multi million pension pots? At least partly, I suspect, the drop in pensions is because so much of financial systems earnings are being trousered by said executives rather than being paid out in dividends. Its a double hit where profitability has reduced and overheads considerably expanded.

As for higher average pay - well I reckon the CCU guys would just stand back and admire their masters when it comes to the sort of statistical manipulation that produces that set of numbers. Where I am there's been a pay freeze for at least three years. Oh, apart from the executive, who carry in in their circle jerk of swapping jobs every few yars for a big hit of extra cash.

Lifelong job security - ROFL. In the Local Government IT department I work in just one person has reached full pension age in the last ten years I can recall: all the others have been made redundant or retired early (which amounts to the same thing).

Subsidised pensions - all pensions are subsidised. Its called employers' contribution.

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FAIL

Why should the job be anywhere ?

Hello ? This is the 19th century calling. You know, millworkers and tied cottages.

Having had some run ins with civil service types over the years, it's hard to imagine a less progressive and staid outfit. The only reason the civil service works at all, is sheer weight of numbers - someone in that morass must be semi-competent.

As long as the civil service apply their Oxbridge criteria to the role, then that's all they'll get - Oxbridge types. Where actually being able to do the job is an added bonus.

Many years ago, I aced the CCTA (as 'twas) aptitude test, screening and interview. When they offered me the job (at £4,500) I asked why it wasnt' the £4,995 they had advertised. "Well", they said, "you're 21, that salary is for a 22 year old". Goodbye.

I got a job in the private sector, at £6,500 instead.

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Anonymous Coward

@ Tom 15

Agreed, however a programmer fresh from uni shouldn't be expected to have the experience the job spec requests either...

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Anonymous Coward

But if we are looking to have the best for GCHQ, then the starting salary needs to be inline with what other people will offer, I know that for some of the banks and consulting firms grads can start on much more than 25K

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Anonymous Coward

@Tom 15.

I get the concept of the starting wage very well, but in strictly dogmatic political agenda dressed up as research CIPD terms, if there wasn't a problem with the wages, there wouldn't be a problem with leavers, and we know there is because Iain Lobban has already admitted it.

I for one am very grateful to the west country vocationalists, (so much so I'd try to work for them, if they had an office I could get to in the morning,) but I think they should get a load more money as they actually do something for me. I'd start by giving everyone at places like the Care quality commission a 50% pay cut, and recognise that all religion is basically a business, so I'd start charging tax, and rates to every catholic and protestant church, every mosque, and so on. I don't see why they should be free of tax, because they have a supernatural imaginary friend. As a representative of the ambulance chasing uber landowners that are the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches, I'm sure the weirdy and beardy ones in charge of it, wouldn't mind.

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I wish my first job came with a £25k starting salary. I spent 4 years studying IT at University while working part-time as a call out I.T technician in my local area to help pay the bills. I got my first job 2 years later with a salary of £13k, after 7 years hard work in the industry I'm now in a management position earning a pretty good salary - but I had to work for it!

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Anonymous Coward

@Kiwani

Just to pick up on some points:

Your 13k salary job wasnt your first job, the one you were doing part time at Uni came before it and, given that £13k is pretty much the national minimum wage (which is around £12646 for a 40 hour week) its a shame that four years part time work didnt help you land something better - although the two years out of work may have been a factor.

Given the low starting salary, you would probably have been better advised to remain in your part time role as a call out IT technician.

I am not sure what it was like for fresh graduates 9 years ago, but now if you have a half decent IT related degree, you have a very good shot at a £25k job without experience.

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Anonymous Coward

my starting salary was £37.50p per week

in the uk defense sector, and very nice it was too. I fairly rapidly left the uk when our personnel dept said 'run-away - run-away' they'd seen the Defense Review and suggested we leave; told us to come back quite soon after that, but we believed the first warning more! I'm now (in ICT) earning uk Minister of State level - but I do have to speak French occasionnellement.

As for better salaries at GCHQ, Bien Sûr, Maybe they could follow the 'monetize the intelligence' path that is evident(*) in the US since the Clinton Era.

(*)evidence? - just usual rantings on the inter tube, tho' they do have a scanned copy of the letter here http://www.softwar.net/usaradio.html

"Dear Ron," wrote Motorola CEO Gary Tooker in July 1995. "I am writing to thank you and some key members of the Commerce Department for your assistance in obtaining the Presidential waiver for encryption export sales to China."

The 1995 Motorola letter is proof that Bill Clinton turned America's spy network into a US cash cow..this seemingly was in response to the clearance by CESG/GCHQ of some EU exports for China, and NSA stepped-in to 'level the playing field' for exports by allowing Motorola to allegedly win the contracts.

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tinfoil hat time

I'm not at all aware of the context of your conspiracy theory, but the thought does occur that, IIRC, at the time cited, the U.S. had a rather obsolete rule that you couldn't export software which achieved 'strong encryption' - by which was meant, IIRC, anything past 40-bit - to just about anywhere. Even though the whole world knew how to do 'strong encryption' very trivially by that time. Certainly including China.

So it would certainly be reasonable for organs of the U.S. government to bend that rule a little if it allowed exports of U.S. stuff that wasn't really particularly security sensitive to compete better with other countries. It may well not be the case that they were *actually* exporting some kind of top-secret government-funded spy stuff to China, but that they were selling them some bit of equipment which just happened to be capable of a level of encryption which was still considered Top Sekrit by export regulations at the time but which, in point of fact, definitely wasn't.

This is all a while back so I may be misremembering, but I think I'm right.

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Anonymous Coward

thanks for the official update

well at least the really *north* american point of view, not the middle bit.

the context is that I was idly chatting about agencies and their 'Save the World' benefit to humanity and their neutrality/impartiality; a very senior German Industrial who knows about these things suggested that TLAs were doing good neutral covert spooky things until The Clinton Era, when "The US Economy" as well as security started to enter the equation.

As required on the Reg forums, a 5 second look for references turned up the 1995 "GCHQ cleared european business to sell to China" with the subsequent US government dash for approval for the encrypted-lite Motorola devices. The main conspiracy theory was that First Party SIGINT snooped on Second Party business in order to discover that an export was about to happen. (This may even be allowed in BRUSA/43 or UKUSA/48 as I haven't got the docs in front of me)

The Clinton Era, whatever it was, still seems to upset people involved! it seems that "compete better" might have been "steal leads from partners" - but that was a long time ago....?

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Black Helicopters

@Errm...

The job has cool-kudos but I still think that if they want to attract the élite the should pay accordingly. A uni grad who solves this can probably command a higher salary somewhere else on entering the market. He (or she) will command an even higher one elsewhere after a year or two at GCHQ so I really hope they pay well...

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Anonymous Coward

Didn't bother.

Nice to see my intuition that it was probably x86 code affirmed. Nops being an off number is a bit of a giveaway, innit. Alright, starting out with a jump moreso. Didn't do the TFI-the-picture thing and all that because my passport says I'm from the wrong side of the canal. Turned out to be the right decision anyway. Oh well.

Vaguely interesting to see the video explaining the thing, noting casual assumption of all the world is an x86* and, lo and behold, treating an ubuntu desktop entirely as if it was windows, with nary a difference. That entirely out of place jimbo stand-in ugly mug stood out just as much for one.

* Would've expected the prof to drop in half a sentence about how this is x86 specific and wouldn't run on, say, arm or 6502 or something. We're talking hardware here anyway. Bit lacking in scientific rigour, much like reading a zero too much in a comment (that "4096 bytes" comment was a bit off), but hey, whatever works. Wars aren't won by formal proofs alone.

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Anonymous Coward

"Why are we paying world-class cyber security experts what we pay passport-stampers at the border-control-agency?"

- Perhaps the security services aren't trying to appeal to people who are only after a large bag of cash. And perhaps hiring people who can be swayed by large bags of cash isn't the best of ideas...

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yea right

Because the market is flooded with people who are in it for the thrills.

Money talks, always has and always will.

You want the best, you pay the best, simple as.

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FAIL

There is a major difference between being offered bags of cash vs being offered what your skillset is worth in the open market.

Better to have someone who is motivated by money than something as nebulous and emotional as patriotism. Do a bit of research you'll see most moles and double agents were motivated their own disillusioned idealism.

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Anonymous Coward

@Gordon 10

>most moles and double agents were motivated their own disillusioned idealism

You mean they didn't get paid nor had some long legged,blue eyed, blonde russian nymphette, probably just like the one sitting next to me hence anon, jump into bed with them.

It would certainly take more than idealism to betray my country, even Tony Blair knew that.

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Anonymous Coward

Mole People

> You mean they didn't get paid nor had some long legged,blue eyed, blonde russian nymphette, probably just like the one sitting next to me hence anon, jump into bed with them.

Actually, no - most dont do it for money / honey traps.

Certainly using the Cold War as an example, most Warsaw Pact run agents in the west were fully motivated by idealism with money being a distant second. Despite the fictional references, few men were recruited via honey traps either. (Blackmail, however, was much more prevalent)

If it would take more than idealism to betray your country, the Soviets would probably not bother trying to get alongside you.

One of the reasons it was (historically) difficult for the relatively poor Soviet Union to bribe western intelligence officials is that the westerners were already reasonably well paid (*) making it prohibitively expensive for the cash poor Sov's to get what they were after - plus conspicuous, unexplained wealth is hard to keep secret....

However, we are in a different world now.

The "hostile" agencies that would need to target the likes of GCHQ (and ironically, the Border Agency Passport Stampers) include cash-rich regimes and wealthy organised crime.

It will be interesting to see how long Loyalty and National Pride hold out against the lure of wealth.

As an aside, if it is the case that we should expect them to save lives on a daily basis for half the market wage, shouldnt we apply the same standard to (for example) merchant bankers who do even less for the nation?

--

(*) as always, there are going to be a minority of cases where this wasnt true and money was the motivator. These are a tiny minority.

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Anonymous Coward

Motivation

"Perhaps the security services aren't trying to appeal to people who are only after a large bag of cash."

There is an assumption here that market rates are a "large bag of cash" which seems a bit bizarre - surely it is just the salary the market thinks is required to get the right skill set...

Also, it harks to the false dichotomy that people are either "in it to do good" OR "in it to get paid" when in reality, the people doing good should be properly paid.

Paying them a reasonable salary in line with what they can earn in the private sector is not an evil thing that will lead to terrible corruption.

If they do a service to the nation, why should we expect them to be paid so badly? Isnt it our duty, as people they protect, to ensure that we collectively fund them in a manner commensurate with how valuable we see them?

(or maybe we already do and it turns out that having Lockheed Martin provide national security is really our preference)

"And perhaps hiring people who can be swayed by large bags of cash isn't the best of ideas"

Except it normally is.

If you pay people so little money they have to flat share with strangers or even double job to live their lives, you open the door to hostile agencies getting a lot for a little.

When your 22 year old new hire gets to 28, has met a boy / girl and wants to settle down and have a family, how does s/he afford the mortgage while putting food on the plate? Having the warm fuzzy feeling of serving the nation doesnt cover the electricity bill, let alone anything else.

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Executable

I kind of assumed the code would be equally breakable by anyone, not that it would just be a filter for assembler programmers. If the code had been based on Tesco stock numbers, they would probably have got loads of people from the Tesco warehouse.

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Trollface

Well, afaik it is a part of their push to build a cyber security "squad" of sorts...

And as I keep hearing every good sysadmin can program.... surely the kind of sysadmin working for GHCQ can program while upside down, being spun at 400rpm, while forced to code in basic on WinME....

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Anonymous Coward

the hard part is

getting WinME to stay up long enough to write the next line of code...

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Anonymous Coward

Hey! HEY!

We WinME users had our six years of ridicule, it's Vista's turn now.

Anon for obvious reasons ;)

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Anonymous Coward

False economy

Paying skilled security staff low wages is a false economy, One terrorist attack would cost the country hundreds of thousands of pounds, perhaps millions, not counting the cost of the lives saved.

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Anonymous Coward

There was no "code" ...

... as in cipher. It was really a low-level x86-ish hacking contest. Not a particularly brilliant one. Fun while it lasted. I didn't expect the end result to be very good so I wasn't disappointed.

I agree that the salary isn't going to attract very many stars, or anyone with much experience. Maybe that's what they want. Cheap low-level assembler and javascript programmers. Ex-games programmers spring to mind now they've lost their subsidy.

@AC 12:28 GMT -- Logica hasn't been very forthcoming on the pay-raise front for a number of years now either.

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Anonymous Coward

I was that AC

"@AC 12:28 GMT -- Logica hasn't been very forthcoming on the pay-raise front for a number of years now either."

Fair one - and it has been a couple of years since I worked for any of the big-uns so they a probably all pretty close to payfreeze now as well.

However, I would rather be frozen on £55k (my starting salary with Logica, 5 years ago) than £21k which GCHQ me offered at the time.

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post grad starting rates

The impression that I got, from what I heard about this, a week or so ago, was that through this exercise, they were trying to attract people from out side the 'usual' groups. People who, in turn, might find the idea of working for GCHQ for £25k quite appealing.

Agreed, a uni graduate may well be able to get more elsewhere, but I don't think they were who they were tageting.

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Pay/Job Satisfaction...

Code hackers/passport stampers...

On the one hand we have a geek's dream job, on the other hand we have a job dealing with the godawful public on a daily basis being shouted at sworn at and goodness knows what else...

It would take a great deal more than 25K for me to be prepared to put up with the passport job...

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Anonymous Coward

A much better test

would have involved geo caching, hidden phone numbers with recorded messages leading to an anonymous building with an access code, a preset time and date, and a chance to have an immediate interview.

Where's my Golden Hare ?

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Hare

I'de forgotten all about that! Did it get found in the end I can't remember ?

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Coat

"...says prof..."

Shouldn't that read "...says *boffin*..." ?

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Anonymous Coward

no brainer?

hm... choices for a bright young graduate:

On the one hand: government office, job security, kudos but can't brag about it, £25k pittance

or...

£100k+ tax free in a foreign and corrupt (un-nannied) country of your choosing, living on the edge, bragging rights, fast cars and girls, strip-mining hapless people, wielding power and influence, keeping a $60 billion dollar AV ecosystem thriving, putting dinners on the table of thousands of security specialists and assorted hangers on, leasing botnets back to governments because they need them too!

GCHQ will need a bigger and better paid army to take on the thousands of newly motivated hackers that they have just inspired and educated...

If governments really wanted to solve cybersecurity, they could.

Cynical? Me?

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Black Helicopters

GCHQ recruiting pawns

Okay, so you've wasted half a day jerking around with what amounts to an uber-nerd crossword puzzle, decided to apply for the poorly paid job because you like the idea of driving around in an aston martin DB5 and shagging anything in a skirt. At the interview, the suits are impressed by your total lack of social skill and need for acceptance; they offer you the job on the spot.

Your career path is thus:

3 months orientation.

6 months tedious analysis of diplomatic missives.

overseas posting. After 1 month doing exactly the same tedious shite except in foreign climes,

"Chance" encounter in regularly frequented bar leads to offer of:

A) Money

B) Sex

C) Money and sex

Deciding that your salary and subsistence barely covers the rent, you opt for C.

The cabinet marked "Top Secret" suddenly takes on the appearance of a piggy-bank in suspenders.

Two years of selling "secrets" pass without any significant incident until your body is found strung up in a hotel room in an apparent auto-asphyxiation fetish gone wrong incident.

Congratulations, you have proven to be a very useful, but dispensable conduit of mis-information for HMG sneaky beaks.

Our condolences to your family.

I'd best get my coat, they've just come through the window and are pointing their guns in a most earnest fashion.

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Anonymous Coward

25k bah

25k is a joke for the skills and security vetting they require. i was considering applying for GCHQ even built a distributed cryptanalysis system as undergrad project. however ended up joining a network company making 29k base with loads of training and more chances of promotion. didn't have my life picked through with a fine toothed comb and do much easier work then code breaking

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as others have said, its not about the money. there are a lot of people (myself included) who would happily trade a larger wage for the tech and work that they do there.

a lot of you bragging about much higher wages - GCHQ are probably glad you arent there, and so am i.

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Anonymous Coward

Eh

> as others have said, its not about the money. there are a lot of people (myself included) who would happily trade a larger wage for the tech and work that they do there.

I dont get why it is an either / or question.

Plus, if you want to work in cutting edge development then there are many private companies where you can do this, and be paid a salary in keeping with your skills and knowledge.

Importantly, why do you think that people who want to be able to raise a family, go on holiday (etc) are some kind of venal disease who will go out of their way to undermine the security of the United Kingdom?

If GCHQ want the best, then they pay for it. If they want people who can afford to live on a poor wage (for the skills required) then they get the people who either cant get jobs in the private sector or come from a select set of people who can afford to live and prosper on that salary.

The reality is while GCHQ pays half the market rate, the best will continue to go to consultancies and outsourced "partners" who will continue to be paid top dollar for providing them back to the Agencies.

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Put your money where your mouth is then. Take the pay cut.

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1/2 what we pay a tube train driver

About half a tube driver wage...

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FAIL

It's not cheap being based in 'Nam

Chelt 'Nam, that is. You can't buy a hole in the road for £25k.

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Facepalm

That would be suprising; Cheltenham certainly has no shortage of holes in the road.

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Danger Money

It's not just the fact that the salary is low compared to the private sector.

You've also got to factor in the personal risk that comes with such a job. You're instantly a more interesting target.

Then there are the additional restrictions placed on you - not being able to discuss your job, keeping a low profile etc, not to mention the travel restrictions you face that even last for a year after you've got sick of the pay and quit.

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Big Brother

Nice one, owen.

How do you think your next border crossing might go?

Something like an alien abduction, perhaps?

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Unhappy

Wrong result :(

I tried this and got a different message:

cyber.png > Gimp De-saturate> cyber.tiff > OCRFeeder> cyber.txt > Hex Editor > "You are a cnut!"

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