Information Warfare: Mad Skillz Elude The FBI

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May 5, 2011: For the last decade, the U.S. FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) has been having a difficult time keeping up with the demand for special agents and support staff possessing the computer skills needed to deal with computer based crime. A recent survey found that about a third of the agents assigned to computer crime teams, felt they lacked the skills to handle all the demands of the job.

It's not for want of trying. Two years ago, the FBI undertook a major hiring effort. With 30,200 employees (40 percent of them "special agents"), the FBI was looking for another 850 special agents, and 2,100 other specialists with scarce skills. With a recession going on, it seemed a good time to be recruiting computer specialists. But this effort did not increase, much, the number of special agents with high grade computer chops.

The FBI is also responsible for going after criminals (including terrorists and spies) that operate via the Internet. The problem is that, for decades, the FBI had been way behind when it came to computer technology. In the last decade, the FBI has tried to catch up. A major problem has been hiring technically competent people. First, the FBI is a pretty straight-laced organization, not the sort of environment that appeals to cutting edge computer techies. This puts off a lot of good people the FBI would like to have. Another problem is money. The FBI employees are paid according to civil service pay scales. This system makes it difficult to hire hot-shot computer experts at market wages. The FBI solution initially was to hire whoever they could get, and then train them. This included a lot of on-the-job training. The problem with this approach was that when these FBI employees got really expert, they noted that they could make a lot more money using their new skills in a non-government job.

The FBI responded to this by creating working relationships with companies that had the highly paid Internet experts. Not quite the same as hiring expensive consultants, but it gave the FBI access to top notch computer skills when they needed it most. Internet security companies, in particular, liked the working relationship with the FBI, because these outfits tracked a lot of computer crime. In turn, the FBI had access to a lot more detail on computer crime, and people who had better skills and tools for hunting down the cybercrooks.

This is not the way the FBI normally likes to operate. At first, the FBI tried to create and maintain a database of online crime. But they didn't have the people, or other resources, to handle it. However, they discovered that commercial Internet security firms were already doing this, and found that these commercial databases were good enough. Working this much with commercial firms is new for the FBI. However, with all the rapidly changing computer technology, and Internet crime techniques, this is the only way the feds can cope. The cooperation with commercial firms also makes it easier to get other government agencies to work together. To take on Internet crime, the FBI had to include the Postal Service, the Federal Trade Commission, as well as a number of other federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement organizations in partnerships. It's a whole new way of operating for the FBI.

All this was mainly in support of the war on terror, and also to replace the growing number of baby boomers who are retiring. The FBI is eager to increase the proportion of agents and support personnel possessing more foreign language and computer skills. This is critical as the FBI stations more personnel overseas. For nearly 70 years, the FBI has had a presence overseas. While the CIA was created half a century ago to specialize in collecting intelligence overseas (and is forbidden by law from doing that in the United States), the FBI always maintained some presence abroad. Even before September 11, 2001, the FBI was sending more agents overseas as part of domestic counter-terror operations. Currently, there are over 200 FBI personnel stationed overseas, in nearly fifty countries. The FBI usually operates out of the local U.S. embassy.

Back home, the FBI is responsible for detecting and defeating large scale computer crime operations. This is becoming a larger and larger responsibility, and the Bureau wants more people qualified to hunt down the cyber criminals, and build a criminal case against them.

 

 


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