FBI Wants To Lead The Nation's Cyberbattalions, But Can't Seem To Recruit Enough Cannon Fodder

from the dodgy-agency-dodged-by-respectable-parties dept

The FBI’s cyber-initiatives may be doomed to fail. While it seems to have little problem acquiring and deploying new technology and techniques, it’s finding it very hard to talk people into running all of it, as Alexander Martin at The Register points out.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is struggling to hire computer scientists, according to a Department of Justice audit of the feeb’s attempts to implement its Next Generation Cyber Initiative.

A 34-page audit report (PDF) from the DoJ notes that, while making considerable progress, the FBI has “encountered challenges in attracting external participants to its established Cyber Task Forces”.

The Inspector General’s report provides additional details on how far behind the agency is falling on its hiring goals. Even the hiring process itself is holding the FBI back.

While the process may start with a recruitment event attended by 5,000 interested candidates, the inability of candidates to meet the FBI’s specific eligibility criteria reduces that number to approximately 2,000 eligible candidates. Subsequently he told us that only about 2 candidates out of such a group are actually hired by the FBI. Another FBI official told us that the FBI loses a significant number of people who may be interested because of the FBI’s extensive background check process and other requirements, such as all employees must be United States citizens and must not have used marijuana in the past 3 years, and cannot have used any other illegal drug in the past 10 years. Another factor may be that private sector entities are able to offer technically trained, cyber professionals higher salaries than the FBI can offer.

The whitehat hackers the FBI would like to hire are looking for more pay and a less-intrusive hiring process. The FBI’s hiring process and wage scale are unlikely to be responsive (though the latter is far more flexible than the former) to these demands. As long as coders can get better pay from employers that don’t subject them to this level of pre-hire intrusion, the FBI will always find its staffing trailing its capabilities.

While the Five Eyes partners mentioned in the report have expressed their support of the FBI’s cyber-focused joint task force, it’s clear the public has not. But that part of the equation isn’t mentioned in the OIG report. It may have been discussed off the record, but there’s no acknowledgment that the post-Snowden climate — combined with the exposure of FBI misconduct ranging from national security letter abuse to its series of entrapment-esque terrorism busts — have made the FBI a less-than-desirable employer. Its reputation isn’t entirely toxic, but it has managed to alienate a large portion of the tech crowd it wishes to hire. Director James Comey’s continued assault on encryption isn’t helping anything.

It’s doubtful the deployment of a G.I.-bill-but-for-coders will fix this, but that’s what the agency is looking to do.

One FBI official explained that the FBI is offering several incentives to recruit individuals including school loan repayment, reimbursement for continuing education, and hiring at higher salary levels on the general pay scale. He also added that the FBI is providing training opportunities for existing personnel including certifications and enrollment in the Carnegie Mellon University Master’s program in Information Technology as retention tools. In addition, in December 2014, the FBI announced to its employees a similar program at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering.

The good news is that once someone’s hired by the FBI, they tend to stay, despite more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. But that’s of little use when the problem is acquisition, rather than retention.

As of January 2015, however, 52 of the 134 Computer Scientist positions remained vacant and 5 of 56 field offices did not have at least 1 computer scientist, as planned.

Working for the FBI isn’t like working for another tech company. The job also has a social cost that won’t be addressed by student loan assistance and training opportunities. To work for the FBI, especially for someone who identifies as a “hacker,” is to say goodbye to a large number of your colleagues. While the private sector doesn’t lack for non-disclosure agreements, the FBI’s disapproval of “shop talk” with friends and family carries hefty federal weight behind it. Normal small talk starts to resemble a series of probative queries. This may only exist in the minds of those interacting with friends and colleagues who have taken jobs at the FBI, but it’s enough to make things uncomfortable.

The FBI may believe its problems are mostly of the pay scale variety, but there’s more to it than purely fiscal concerns. The agency may do good work, but it has engaged in questionable investigations and activities almost since its formation. Leaks and FOIA documents have done further damage to its reputation in recent years. The FBI, despite its technical prowess — appears to be anti-tech, at least in terms of fighting against any advances that impede its surveillance techniques. The agency, for the lack of a better word, is untrustworthy. The FBI appeals to candidates’ idealism during the recruitment process, but over the years, it has repeatedly acted without integrity. Because of that, it will always have a problem finding whitehats willing to work for an entity that often seems to be in the “blackhat” camp.

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Comments on “FBI Wants To Lead The Nation's Cyberbattalions, But Can't Seem To Recruit Enough Cannon Fodder”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

What I hear

I know a lot of excellent security engineers that would be able to pass the FBI hiring criteria and wouldn’t mind the pay scale (assuming the work was interesting enough).

Not a single one of them would consider working for the FBI. This is primarily because the FBI has made themselves clearly and unambiguously the Bad Guys of security, and so the enemies of white hat engineers.

Secondarily, as the article mentions, anyone who took a job with the FBI would find themselves essentially exiled and would lose the benefits of all of the friends and professional contacts they’ve spent years accruing.

It is, in other words, a career killer.

That the FBI thinks the issue is one of pay shows just how completely out of touch they are — and is another bright red flag telling people that they shouldn’t work for the FBI.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: What I hear

They can go complaining to Congress that they need more money for hiring. Budget hawks won’t like it, but the National Security hawks are only too happy to throw money at that sort of claim. Relatively speaking, changing compensation can be done much more readily than changing the culture, the internal bureaucracy, or the well-deserved bad reputation.

That One Guy (profile) says:

"Our hiring process requires that you strictly obey the law. The job itself, not so much."

So they’re trying to hire people with the desire to help out and make a positive difference(whitehats), for a position that requires them to have the morals and ethics of blackhats. Can’t imagine why they might be having difficulty finding people with the right qualifications…

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

Other constraints

Working for them, or the NSA, also puts you under constraints that you don’t have to worry about in the private sector.

Specifically, they can’t read about what Edward Snowden has reviled since it is considered classified. I’m pretty sure it was mentioned here at Tech Dirt about how NSA staff were ordered to never read any news about.

That would suck being told by your employer that you can be criminally charged for reading something in a newspaper.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Other constraints

That would suck being told by your employer that you can be criminally charged for reading something in a newspaper.

It gets worse. Keeping your job depends on your having to convince a scientology e-meter (lie detector) that you’re a good guy, once per year. What kind of forward thinking tech employer believes lie detectors have any scientific validity? Only those who disallow reading newspapers it seems. “Brillant! [sic]”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Other constraints

“What kind of forward thinking tech employer believes lie detectors have any scientific validity? “

None. But if you are this kind of person it is rather easy to find a way to beat those things. Hel, even if you are a normal person it only takes some hours to find a way to beat them.
It is even enough to make yourself believe that everything you say is true. So if you are able to remove the right-wrong feeling aka guilt you are good. Strangly this makes kind of sociopaths viable. On the other hand it would explain some things.

Simon Green says:

I don't think the Five Eyes are doing much better

I’ve been working in cellular telecommunications operations and design for 16 years, and I wouldn’t call myself an expert in SS7. Our New Zealand Herald, reporting on the Snowden Leaks, showed a slide indicating that we are apparently being protected from the dire threat of Chinese hackery by people who receive a whole single day of slideware training on SS7 before being let loose saving the world.

Anonymous Coward says:

I would hate my employer subjecting me to a lie detector (polygraph) test. There’s actually a law that protects US employees from this invasive search of the mind.

“The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) is a United States federal law that generally prevents employers from using polygraph (lie detector) tests, either for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment, with certain exemptions.”


“The law does not cover federal, state, and local government agencies.”

Marvelous! Lets create a law, then immediately exempt ourselves from said law. Hahaaa!


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