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AUTISM & THE SPECIAL SPIES - NEURODIVERSITY

Some people say that being on the Autistic Spectrum is a natural 'next step' in the evolutionary development of the human race.  A little 'tongue in cheek' maybe, but having the ability, like our predatory ancestors, to strip out emotion in favour of survival, may actually lend some truth to the statement after all.  Are those people who previously sat on the fringes of society, destined to be the shapers and conductors of exponential thought?  Pretty bold statements indeed, but for those in the know, is 'learning difficulty' really an appropriate term to describe a large section of the community where learning is far from difficult, but sometimes a  little too easy?  Where 'special needs' more accurately refers to a need for more information or colour on a canvas in what is an otherwise monochrome landscape? They might not be able to integrate well in society, but they can, and do, help to protect it.   Being on the Autistic Spectrum, highly functional people with Autism, those with Aspergers and the Savant, can and do offer the intelligence services incredible talents.  There is a definition of an entrepreneur that goes "an entrepreneur is a person who is alert to opportunities that other people ignore".  On that basis, someone with ASD could be someone who is 'alert to details that other people ignore".

At SIS the challenge for the Recruitment Team is to find "ordinary people with extraordinary minds and skills".  Those with the variety of conditions that are grouped under the banner "Neurodiversity", namely dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, Asperger’s and autism, often struggle to land jobs because of negative stereotypes. Full-time employment rates among members of the National Autism Society, for example, stand at only 15 per cent. Yet when it comes to being recruited as spies, those “problems” become pluses.

"GCHQ even has its own Neurodiverse Support Group. Its chairman (who naturally wants to be identified only as “Matt”) explains the thinking: “What people don’t realise is that people with neurodiversity usually have a 'spiky skills’ profile, which means that certain skills areas will be below par and others may well be above.”

GCHQ is not the only employer to spot this opportunity. Three quarters of the workforce of the Danish software company Specialisterne is made up of those on the autism spectrum. It argues that a diagnosis of autism can often point to enhanced perceptual functions and a greater-than-average ability to pay attention to tiny, apparently insignificant details. And that is precisely what is in short supply in the industry.

 

But does that neat fit between “neurodiversity” and spying stretch much beyond a genius with software, the sort of work that is more Q’s department than 007’s globetrotting high jinks? What about solving mysteries and tracking down criminals? Surely that same attention to detail could pay dividends in a secret agent or high-profile detective."

 

The many websites aiming to crush the myth that dyslexia is any obstacle at all to being a world-beater are full of the names of those who have thrived with it – inventors (Alexander Graham Bell), entrepreneurs (Richard Branson), virtuoso musicians (Nigel Kennedy), writers (F Scott Fitzgerald) and Renaissance men (Leonardo da Vinci). But I can find none with a special category for spies and detectives (with special thanks to Peter Stanford of The Guardian newspaper).

So, let's assume that in the real world the use of the phrase 'learning difficulty' is probably another one of those terms that will one day take a seat next to the latest politically incorrect phrases to describe a minority.  Closely followed by 'special needs' and joining  'police person', a 'person hole' cover or 'non-specific' genders as other reminders of changing societal pressures.  In essence, the majority of 'those' people with some exceptional skills at their disposal, have learnt how to deal with such pressures from an early age, and in many cases, developed coping mechanisms to deal with certain uncomfortable situations.  Just developing those skills in themselves requires a development and cerebral workout that most simply do not have to endure.  Being a highly functional, left handed, seemingly normal, outgoing and emotionally mature member of society is no mean feat and those people armed with the ability to not only survive, but thrive in those circumstances, have an ability that organisations such as GCHQ and SIS can harness.  In fact, one could easily say that in order to have created a so-called 'normal' persona and one which has had to sometimes live with the monotony a school curriculum has to offer, and at the same time 'flesh out' what to some would appear a highly popular person, is already well versed in the art of creating a 'legend' and false identity.  Survival skills like that, learnt from an early age, can sometimes take many months if not years to teach the 'normal' SIS recruit.  A thin line between madness and genius indeed.   But, if you place yourself in the shoes of a child who has had some profound differences growing up, and has then managed to sell themselves as being just like everyone else and actually sit comfortably in the upper percentiles, imagine how useful such a chameleon could be to the intelligence services.  It is innate, and the complex neural networks were busy finding ways to by-pass various synapses whilst others in the classroom were living a relatively charmed life of normality.

Of course, there has to be a price to pay, and in many circumstances this can be in the form of some quite profound mental health problems for individuals at the less functioning end of the spectrum.  That said, as studies of psychology and spectrum disorders such as autism, aspergers ADHD etc continue to develop from what was until very recently nothing at all, the exceptional talents people with these condition have, can be used to add value in most organisations.

As mentioned above, this adoption of the neuro-diverse within GCHQ already attributes value.  Of course, the less emotionally developed within the spectrum may find certain tasks restrictive, but then again doesn't everyone?  The often repeated mission statement, that the intelligence services are 'made up of diverse individuals to more closely represent the diverse society they protect' can be applied in this case.  Indeed, scaling back feelings of empathy, emotion or other external influences out of decision making in favour of logic, proof and testing, is an important contributor for organisations such as GCHQ.  Which is why they have been ahead of the curve in recognising this subject and treating it with the respect it deserves. 

 

A James Bond they are not, but if I had to go into a real Casino Royale, I'll take Rain Man over 007 any day.  

It is estimated that over 30%, and indeed maybe even as high as 53% of individuals working at GCHQ could legitimately have a place on the Autistic Spectrum (ASD). 

"Daring to think differently and be different"

- Article published by GCHQ - 29 Mar 2017

To mark World Autism Awareness Week, we hear from James*, a GCHQ member of staff with Asperger syndrome.

I think that it was down to GCHQ that I ever got diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, as my school, university and other jobs had serially failed to spot it for many years.

I just got labelled as "doesn’t suffer fools gladly", "can be a little blunt, especially in emails", "isn’t very sociable and rubs folk up the wrong way" and so on.

Interestingly, while people may have in hindsight attributed bad things to Asperger syndrome, it is very rare that anyone seems to make that connection with more positive behaviours.

 

The positive aspects are often things like:

  • Very good attention to detail, can spot patterns, anomalies and trends easily.

  • Very good focus on a task and determination to complete it, perhaps even explore wider context to it and innovate.

  • Very good, logical, science-based decision making without the often distracting emotional baggage many people have this. So able to make independent, unbiased decisions.

 

As you can imagine, all these things are crucial to GCHQ's work! This could be one of the reasons why we have always attracted a high number of neurodiverse staff, stretching back to Bletchley Park and beyond.

As our Director Robert Hannigan has said: "To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different." 

 

I was encouraged to seek diagnosis by GCHQ's Neurodiversity Adviser, which turned out to be quite easy and painless. GCHQ has had a specialised neurodiversity support service for 20 years and has training and detailed guidance available for all staff. 
 
One of the things it offers are awareness sessions for managers. Good management makes a big difference to how well you cope. 

  • A good manager will help you to put in place coping mechanisms and make reasonable adjustments while you get these working.

  • A good manager will recognise what work you will do well and what work would be really challenging.

  • A good manager will make other workplace adjustments to minimise aspects of work that make an 'Aspie' anxious, such as business travel in my case. 

  • A good manager will recognise that Asperger syndrome isn't curable but that you can employ coping mechanisms and practise the hard things in graded steps.

  • A bad manager can ruin your confidence, career and make you totally unproductive.

My experience could have been a different story if I hadn't have found myself working for an employer who not only helped me diagnose my syndrome but also saw the positives. I’ve experienced how we are consistently striving to be even better at supporting neurodiverse staff.   It is great to see the department leading the way with education and looking for more opportunities to deploy neurodiverse staff in a way that ensures their skills are best employed.

 

GCHQ is a 'Disability Confident' Level 3 employer committed to supporting all our staff with disabilities, including those with neurodiverse conditions. We are actively ensuring our recruitment campaigns are accessible and that there are no barriers to the recruitment and continued professional development of neurodiverse staff.

*Name changed to protect his identity

 

Next Steps?

So there you have it. A mixture of our opinion, some 'PR friendly' published data from our friends at GCHQ, and a general perceived knowledge that all people on the spectrum are capable of emotionless but well thought out logical thoughts. Thoughts indeed that would furnish at least the top IT desks of cyber security, if not the lofty heights of Management. Does one detect a tone of cynicism? 

Maybe not cynicism but realism. Life is just not that simple. As any leading politician ( or psychologist for that matter) would say “it’s a little more complicated than that”. 

We are in for an interesting ride over the next ten years, especially when the' psychopath's nightmare' of a controlled amygdala comes to fruition. This is covered in more detail elsewhere, however for those who are interested click below.  The notion of controlling the part of our brain that is proven to regulate levels of emotion, has been around for some time.  Some have argued that in such extreme cases (even depression and mental illness) although there is no 'cure' as such, there are ways to treat these conditions.  With the inevitability of personal subcutaneous microchips rapidly approaching, there is certainly some fairly advanced progress being made in the US, Canada and the UK, to regulate the Amygdala using controlled flow of chemicals and medication in the brain with the help of technology. 

 

The next leap in terms of allowing technology to then affect behaviour becomes a much trickier ethical and philosophical proposition.  Specialist lawyers beware, you will be busy fairly soon we suspect.

Can we induce an event which leads to a material and significant change in a person’s ability or behaviour which would be useful to an organisation such as MI6?

A: Straps yourselves in for a little bit of a wild ride, so if extreme sports of the academic or indeed philosophical kind are not your thing, then please unbuckle now and leave the park.   The four terms used in the title would appear at first glance to be connected, but for the purposes of this article, are not.  There is a distinct, and key difference in that they refer to a journey of sorts.  The journey of the mind and neural functionality that eventually leads to a change which has been caused by an ‘event’. 

Each term describes a condition.  A condition of the brain at a point in the journey. 

 

Before we look at the journey and where it leads to, let us accept that each of these conditions describes a state of functionality that is different from the ‘norm’.  So, autism is recognised as a condition affecting the brain and functionality that has a spectrum associated with it.  At the very low end of the spectrum, rather confusingly, people would be described as highly functional i.e. they can pretty much operate in society as pass the tests which place them as being ‘normal’, whatever that is of course. 

 

The important point here and for the purposes of this article is that where ever the person is on the spectrum, the condition is innate and not causes by an event.  What we do recognise is that the functionality or ‘wiring' of the brain is different and a person is predisposed to think and react emotionally (or not depending on where on the scale you are) in ways that are perceived as abnormal.  There are then a whole host of sub conditions or effects that are then associated with people at various points on the spectrum.  As an example, these often go beyond the emotional or psychological, but manifest themselves in the form of physical tics maybe, or when closer to the more extreme end of the spectrum, mono-toned speech, lack of empathy, sometime social outburst etc.  This is in itself a huge subject which has been written about already to the extreme of its own spectrum and one which we will not wish to cover here.  For the purpose of this article, it is sufficient to acknowledge the state as it exists in its various form is innate.

The same can be said for those people diagnosed with Asperger’s.  However, as we move further along the spectrum of Nero diverse labels, we edge closer to signs of functionality among the neurodiverse which offer interesting potential to thinkers, scientists and organisations keen to incubate and foster exceptional talent......

Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 

Report on Diversity and Inclusion in the UK Intelligence Community

Published July 2018

- View -

To all human resources people out there, you're safe in your jobs for another year or two.  The arduous task of completing the 'funding inspired' box-ticking exercise has been completed for another period.   The Intelligence Services actually do a fair amount for diversity but why is there no particular reference in the above report of people with learning difficulties such as autism or aspergers etc?  If there is another report please send it in.   They do refer to those with "cognitive, intellectual, mental, sensory, developmental or some combination", but there is no specific detail other than that in the report.  The "impression" is it is geared more towards physical disabilities.  Of course they do have the standard courteous amount of bar charts and boxes with percentages, and even quote Alex Younger, to paraphrase, who wants to see the IC physically represent the society it protects.  If that is the case Mr Younger, and I doubt for one second you actually subscribe to this government led, grey suit rhetoric, then surely a report on those with certain 'conditions' would also be more representative.  I am loathed to use the words 'learning difficulties' because people with ASD generally have the completely opposite problem.  As far as 'special needs' is concerned?  Yes they do have a special need to be applied effectively in an environment which encourages practical application of innate skills which could significantly yield more positive results per head of employee than those without being on the spectrum.  I conclude my rant......nearly!

The report is in my view, as with many like it in modern organisations, a job keeper document.  That's fine.  This is a political-corporate game that needs to be played apparently, so let it happen. It harms no one right?  Well it sort of does, yes.  It is akin to 'time theft' in my view and a misallocation of resources to keep the Human Resources budgets whirring.  This is all well and good in the times that used to be referred to as 'peace times' when we are afforded that luxury, but when the proverbial hits the fan and its time for action, what we really need to see is a demonstration that these functions can be switched off in an instant and resources redistributed to the 'front line' so to speak.  The report itself acknowledges that the 'tap on the shoulder' method of recruitment is still active and even cements the long held view that all recruits are white, male, oxbridge candidates.  Thats because they are.  Frankly, speaking as someone on the periphery of that demographic, I believe it has been the case for a reason and a very good one at that.  But I will attempt to retain a modicum of objectivity.  The point is, whats the point?  The report tells us of the LGBT, cross-gender, disabled etc. as most of these reports do.  If the aim REALLY is to represent the society it protects then of course one could argue to the nth degree where to draw the line.  Maybe start with those areas that are likely to yield greater returns?  Does someone who is lesbian or black deserve to be employed as much as a middle class white male?  Of course they do. Without doubt. But......I am in danger of falling into the dangerous trap of getting sucked into the corporate void here, in the same way an adult can sometimes find themselves being drawn into an argument with a child.  A discussion about the percentage of black or gay people in the organisation.  Developed Vetting. Really?  Would a room full of people who might have been attacked or killed by a terrorist bomb, really have cared if the person who gave the intelligence services the information that then stopped that bomb attack had a history of bad book keeping or a CCJ for a missed council tax bill*?  I seriously doubt it.  In actual fact (and in a slight nod to previous comments), it comes down to character.  And within that, motivation, discipline and skilled execution.  In reality, SIS operates slightly differently and so does GCHQ...thankfully.  I don't see MOSSAD spending too much time discussing grievance procedures, accountability, part time working conditions any time soon, do you?

Final note:  Of all the statistics and data in the report the one that stood out was the % of staff who chose not to declare their sexual orientation as part of the report.  For GCHQ, 92.9% decided not declare anything.  Read from that what you will.

*DV- Developed Vetting checks a number of vital areas about a candidates past not just financial details such as Counter Terrorist and Security checks. These of course are not what is referred to here.

The Remora Principle
The CEO at Patrium Intelligence (one of our appointed Private Intelligence Agencies) recently coined the term "The Remora Principle" and how it describes a method of operating within Secret Intelligence globally.  The phrase to 'operate within the shadows' is often used, however the Remora Principle outlines in specific detail how effective intelligence gathering is achieved by not only staying within the shadows of a larger, more distracting element, but to move with it.  It provides key steps Intelligence Agents should take to ensure effective information gathering and reporting to officers, and focuses more on modern technological advancement.  By following the steps outlined within the Remora Principle, one is able to then tailor specific actions that are applicable to individual operations.
Q: Can we induce an event which leads to a material and significant change in a person’s ability or behaviour which would be useful to an organisation such as MI6?

Straps yourselves in for a little bit of a wild ride, so if extreme sports of the academic or indeed philosophical kind are not your thing, then please unbuckle now and leave the park. The four terms used in the title would appear at first glance to be connected, but for the purposes of this article, are not.  There is a distinct, and key difference in that they refer to a journey of sorts.  The journey of the mind and neural functionality that eventually leads to a change which has been caused by an ‘event’. Each term describes a condition.  A condition of the brain at a point in the journey. 

Where did my Taxi Driver and my money go?”

 

Whenever there is a radical and rapid development in Technology, the voices of those who fear the human effects of such developments sing loud.  Of course, debate is ultimately a healthy proposition when conducted in the correct manner i.e a respectful exchange of ideas, evidence and facts to determine the truth or at least the likelihood of why ‘something’ happens.  The problem is that as we venture further up the emotional curve and hit the raw nerve of public consciousness, a healthy debate, absent of extreme views, is less and less likely.   This is quite possibly the stage we are at now when it comes to the vast changes of technological development at exponential rates of growth.  If one then throws into the mix a subject such as Artificial Intelligence, which has been the subject of many a doomsday prophecy, especially in the fictional world, then the prediction of likely effects  becomes distorted.  There are a vast number of capillaceous issues branching out from each topic within AI and on a scale which precludes us from analysis in this article due to time.  However, there are rarely more topics as emotive as a person's job and their ability to generate income in order to survive...so will driverless cars render the taxi driver extinct and will money even be necessary in any form? Read More. 13.08.19

Dark Web

An Opportunity or Threat?

Perceived wisdom suggests the Dark Web is synonymous with illegal activities involving weapons, drugs and pedophiia.  The assumption has been that if you use it, then you have something sinister to hide.  To be fair, closure of drug giants like "Silk Road" did nothing to change those perceptions.  However, in the big brother world of surveillance, the search for privacy is demanded by the majority and will be found in some way or another.  Furthermore, in a society where people are being increasingly attracted to the fringes of life,  the shift to increasing usage of the Dark Web is a given.  That does not mean it is wrong however, and as we often witness, it is people from the 'fringes' who sometimes operate outside of social norms, who provide the greatest sources of innovation.  We firmly believe the dark web will undergo an upgrade of sorts and although usual, non-secured browser based sites will attract some attention, their days are numbered.  The really exciting proposition is to predict Dark Web 2.0, 3.0 and so on. Rather ironically, but understandably, it is the law enforcement and intelligence agencies who are spending more and more resources on hiding within the shadows of the Dark Web.  It has been the most effective way so far.  However, as it grows, it will it continue to be the safe haven of the criminal or will some form of regulation (such as was with the legalisation of drugs etc), prevent the extreme offenders?  Take the example of Silk Road. It is not only possible, it is probable.  Whether you are in favour of legalisation generally or not,  in many cases it is a safer option.  Many of the sites that offered Marijuana were ran as slick commercial organisations where consumer satisfaction was paramount.  The product was therefore of superior quality (apparently) and it was offered within the relative safety of the internet and not some dark street corner.  Maybe that one is for the liberals out there.  For our purposes however, it shows that the deep dark web does actually have a USP which can be monetized, namely privacy.  Looking further head therefore, the real drug that will sell well in our 'Orwellian' future, is anonymity.  That will undoubtedly be the most precious of commodities.

 

As it stands now however, people and the societies they live in tend to display tendencies to self-regulate and yes, whilst there is always potential for abuse, the masses will (or should) drive the market to some degree of parity.  There are certainly huge opportunities around the corner.  A secured 'blockchain'esque' physical depository for parcel delivery is bound to happen on a large scale and accompany the growth of the Dark Web.  That is because the only chink in its armour at the moment is complete anonymity with delivery of items. Imagine a secure facility where parcels (aka Data) entering from one side, is subjected to 'scrambling' (aka 'Encryption') and leave the other side to be collected by a seemingly unconnected party (aka 'You').  Now multiply that across every City in the UK.  You then have what one can REALLY call an encrypted, secure, supply chain that would be undetectable to all agencies and, most importantly, legal  Read More.

Innovation, technology and the military are inextricably linked, and throughout history whenever there is a technological breakthrough, one of the first beneficiaries is invariably the military.  Whether it is recent developments such as GPS, or much later, Galileo selling telescopes to Italian monasteries to see enemy ships approaching, the human desire to conquer or defend is paramount. With the 'genie' firmly out of the bottle, Artifical Intelligence will become a 'game changer' in the Military world as for many, the upsides are simply too strong to worry about potentially disastrous consequences.  Here we take a look at the detail and the precise areas of growth just around the corner.Read More

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