The FBI is suffering from an image problem. Its boss has spent a great deal of time arguing against protecting phone owners from thieves and malicious hackers. Its anti-terrorism program seems to be focused on pushing vulnerable people into doing things they'd never do on their own. And it has, along with the NSA, seen whatever street cred it might have had stripped away by leaked documents, litigation, and the realization that all Americans and their rights are subject to the agency's chants of "national security."
In order for an agency to keep up with the hacking Joneses, it needs periodic injections of new blood. The problem is, the only decently-skilled hackers the FBI can apparently press into service are those it's arrested. It's having a difficult time attracting new hires that honestly want to use their skills in the ways the FBI would like to deploy them.
So, the FBI is trying to alter its stance on hiring, as well as the public's perception of the agency. And, of course, it's failing to do so because it's allowing Jim "Nerd Harder" Comey to act as spokesperson for the FBI's youth movement. After being informed by his daughter that the FBI = "The Man," Comey is using this dad anecdote to lead into a series of dad jokes that seem better suited for attracting people like him, rather than the people his agency actually needs.
His daughter was right, he said. But the agency is trying to get more hip to attract recruits who will help the agency keep pace with a digital landscape in constant flux, according to Comey.
"We’re working very hard inside the FBI to be a whole lot cooler than you may think we are," he said during his remarks at a Symantec Government Symposium this week.
The agency hasn't added "beanbags and granola and a lot of whiteboards" — stereotypical hallmarks of West Coast start-up culture — at least not yet, Comey said.
And much dad LOL-ing ensued. Comey's joke doesn't work -- at least not in terms of convincing people the agency is "hip" enough for youngsters -- because it relies heavily on an out-of-touch person's stereotype of what a "hip" tech company's campus might look like. The fact that the agency already doesn't use "a lot of whiteboards" suggests it is more than just a few years removed from hipness. It suggests the agency is several decades behind, presumably relying on overhead projectors and chalkboards to present info to agents.
While the FBI has occasionally discussed relaxing hiring standards in order to attract fresh blood, it will never relax them to the point needed. The FBI wants young hackers to help develop its tech tools, but it expects them to have the same sort of background as its field agents: free from drug use, criminal activity, and presumably interested in pursuing a degree in criminal law during their spare time.
If the FBI can't find the hires it needs, it will continue to slide into tech irrelevance. But it created this downhill slope itself. It's going to be impossible to attract new talent when the unspoken part of Comey's pitch is that this talent will be used to punch holes in encryption and strip internet users of their anonymity. It's "us vs. them" all over again, but Comey thinks he can get hackers to switch sides by promising them beanbags and granola at some point in the future.
The problem is that Comey appears to be relying on jingoism and patriotism to make up for the concessions he's unwilling to make. But it's been a long time since younger generations felt a moral obligation to serve their country -- something that headed downhill quickly with the Vietnam War draft and the War on Drugs that followed shortly thereafter. Around this same time, the FBI's dirty laundry was being aired, showing it routinely engaged in pervasive surveillance and civil rights violations by targeting anyone who wasn't a straight, white, Protestant male who routinely voted Republican.
Comey isn't just working against recent revelations. He's working against more than 40 years of "The Man" viewing younger generations and countercultural activity as threats or investigative targets, rather than just healthy parts of a nation that will always be engaged in growing pains.
It's not even clear that Comey actually wants to make the FBI more attractive to the tech talent it needs. It looks more as though he just wants to give that impression, rather than make the sort of necessary cultural changes within his agency that might actually attract private sector talent. If they're ever going to buy in, the public needs to see actions, rather than more words. The FBI wants top tech talent, but so far, it's only willing to send out its worst possible selection for "Youth Ambassador" to spread the word.