NSA vs Homeland Security – How Do They Compare?

Welcome to another article of The Infographics Show- today we're taking a look at the two most infamous American federal agencies: the NSA and Homeland Security. 
NSA vs Homeland Security

How Does the NSA vs Homeland Security?

In 2013 defense contractor Edward Snowden released a trove of secret NSA memos on the internet, immediately putting the agency under fire for illegal wiretaps, surveilling American citizens without warrants, and even exchanging intercepted sexually explicit texts and emails between employees. The Department of Homeland Security meanwhile is no stranger to controversy, feared as a modern-day Gestapo created in the aftermath of the September 11th terror attacks. But what exactly does each agency do, and how do they compare? Welcome to another article of The Infographics Show- today we’re taking a look at the two most infamous American federal agencies: the NSA and Homeland Security. 

NSA Origins

The NSA has its origins in various short-lived organizations, though its focus has always been on collecting and analyzing enemy intelligence. To this end, the agency’s history is fraught with examples of abuse, with its first predecessor, the MI-8, existing from 1917 until 1928 when it was shut down due to a partnership with Western Union that gave them direct access to personal messages.

During World War II the United States resurrected the mission of the MI-8 and created the Signal Security Agency, tasking it with intercepting and decoding Nazi wartime codes, as well as deciphering secret communications to Nazi agents inside the United States itself.


After World War II the United States military and intelligence community had grown so large that a grand restructuring was necessary, giving birth to the National Security Act of 1947 which would go on to create the National Security Agency in 1952- though the agency was not formally recognized and would operate in secrecy for years. To this day the focus of the NSA remains signals intelligence: the interception of enemy communications, the deciphering of enemy codes, and in the modern age the protection of American computer systems.

As one of the most secretive organizations of the US federal government, the vast majority of NSA operations remain classified to this day, but declassified documents show that the NSA had conducted surveillance of major American civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, as well as well-known political satirist Art Buchwald. Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak also showed that the NSA conducted surveillance on many American citizens both at home and abroad, as well as a large number of foreign nationals, leading to a fair amount of embarrassment on the behalf of the US government.

The Department of Homeland Security

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The Department of Homeland Security is commonly thought to have its origins in the 2001 September 11th terror attacks, yet in early February of that year, a US National Security Commission made a recommendation to President Bush for a significant restructuring of federal resources, as up to then homeland security missions were being undertaken by 40 different federal agencies. The commission’s recommendation was for a concentration of these different resources into a single department- the Department of Homeland Security- which would be tasked with focusing solely on threats to the American homeland.


One month later, in March, Congressman Mac Thornberry proposed a bill to create the National Homeland Security Agency, but Congress took no further action on the bill. Eleven days before the September 11th terror attacks, President George W. Bush announced he would create an Office of Homeland Security within the white house, but it would remain an advisory group rather than a federal law enforcement agency. One year later, on June 6th, 2002 President Bush would go on to officially create the Department of Homeland Security as a cabinet-level federal department. 

DHS Mission

The DHS has five top missions: Preventing Terrorism and Improving Security, Securing and Managing American Borders, Enforcing and Administering Immigration Laws, Safeguarding and Securing Cyberspace, and Strengthening National Preparedness and Resilience. While its difficult to directly calculate the effectiveness of the DHS to date given the broadness of its missions, the agency has met with a great deal of criticism, with one Federal oversight report in 2015 stating that the agency had made little noticeable improvement to the prevention of terrorist attacks on US soil.

The report also expounded serious competency issues in the realm of cybersecurity, its federal agents- finding that many of which were not trained in weapons screening- as well as criticizing the agency for having no plan for a possible Ebola pandemic. Though the agency continues to evolve, many question the necessity of the DHS to this day.


But let’s say that you don’t mind a little controversy and would like to pursue a career with either agency- what do you need to do to qualify for a job with the NSA or the DHS?

NSA Qualifications 

Applying to the NSA is a lengthy process, with former employees reporting that the entire process can take anywhere from 7 to 12 months. While specific details are difficult to come by due to the secretive nature of the agency, we know that the first step begins with a Human Resources screening where your application is reviewed and you are invited to an interview.

Throughout the interview, a manager will assess your qualifications, and you may be subject to on-the-spot tests depending on your specific skillset- if applying to be a translator you may be given a document or article to translate on the spot, while computer specialists report being subjected to various tests such as the infamous ‘FizzBuzz’ test- to pass the test the applicant is asked to write a program that prints the numbers 1 to 100, but for multiples of three it should print the word ‘Fizz’ instead of the number, and for multiples of five print ‘Buzz’.


For numbers that are multiples of both three and five, it must print FizzBuzz. If an applicant can’t write a code within a few minutes to accomplish this task, the interview is over.

If the hiring manager approves of your interview and application you’ll then move on to your security clearance check. A typical security clearance is extremely exhaustive and asks you to list precise details of previous addresses you lived at, any criminal or legal issues, medical history, family history, work history, and details on overseas travel or foreign contacts.

A typical security clearance application can take upwards of four weeks to complete, and once submitted the background and security check itself can take months. Any discrepancies discovered is typically grounds for termination of the hiring process.


The final step involves psychological testing and a polygraph test, and details of either are very difficult to come by. It is known that the type of tests given and the content vary from individual to individual, but the NSA website itself recommends being completely candid about anything asked. Should you pass both your psychological and polygraph test, your application and security clearance undergoes one final review before a job offer is formally extended.

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Qualifications for the DHS. 

The Department of Homeland Security operates a fair bit more casually than the NSA, with a hiring process similar to any major corporation. An applicant begins by checking a DHS job board and selecting a job to apply for, uploading their resume online. That resume is then reviewed by a human resource specialist who screens it to ensure you meet the basic eligibility requirements for the specific position applied for. A panel of experts then rate your application according to the additional qualifications listed on the job opportunity announcement, and if it ranks among the best qualified, it’ll be forwarded to a hiring manager who makes the final selection.

You’ll then be contacted to schedule an interview or to submit additional items such as writing samples, essays or references. If you continue to be a satisfactory candidate, you’ll then be subjected to an exhaustive security clearance process that can last from two weeks to a year depending on the level of clearance required.


If you land a job at either agency, you’ll be submitted to the same pay scales determined by the General Schedule PayScale, a federal government payscale used to determine the salaries of most federal employees. Your base pay varies on two factors on the GS payscale- the GS pay grade of your job, and the Paygrade Step you’ve achieved based on seniority and performance. The GS pay scale starts at GS-1 and goes to GS-15, with 10 steps at each pay scale grade. As of 2018 the pay scale begins at $18,526 for a GS-1, step 1 employee, and tops out at $134,776 for a GS-15, step 10 employee.

Along with the same pay scales used, both agencies provide paid holidays, vacation time, a retirement plan, and the option to enrol yourself and your family in dental, vision, health and life insurance- with the government subsidizing a large portion of those costs in most cases.

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The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security- two agencies with vastly different missions, but sharing in no small amount of infamy. What do you think about the DHS and NSA? In light of the abuses by both agencies are they still vital for national security, or should we disband one or both agencies? Let us know in the comments section below. See more


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