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.