Information Warfare: The FBI Fumbles the Future Too Frequently

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March 22, 2006: In the United States, the FBI was long believed to be a leader in using technology to fight crime. Actually, this reputation is, in many respects, undeserved. The FBI was caught particularly flat footed three decades ago when personal computers, and the age of cheaper computing, began. The FBI never really got going in this area. In the last ten years, there have been a series of embarrassing revelations about failed attempts to catch up. The latest one has to do with FBI agents not being able to get government e-mail accounts because there's no money in the budget for it. Oh, and that experiment that equipped 200 agents with Balckberry's, it had to be cancelled because of lack of money as well. In both cases, it was obvious that the people at the top are still out of touch when it comes to the need for computer technology. For example, by way of comparison, every soldier and officer in the army has a government email account, and in the navy, even support staff at navy school's get Blackberrys.

But it gets worse. Three years ago the FBI found it was having some serious recruiting problems as it tried to expand its staff of computer experts. To the FBI, most qualified geeks that apply are "tainted goods." The elite of the FBI are the "Special Agents." Like pilots in the air force, the Special Agents are the anointed leaders of their organization. Becoming one requires above average mental and physical skills, as well as a clean background. The kind of computer experts the FBI is recruiting, all qualify on the high-IQ front, but run into problems when it comes to physical fitness and an unblemished background. Geeks are known for spending endless hours in front of a computer, not for taking breaks to do push-ups or run laps. The diet of Jolt Cola and junk food doesn't help either. The Internet wizards the FBI needs the most would not survive the FBI Academy obstacle course. Many would not survive a background check either. The best hackers have often hacked places they shouldn't have. Even if they weren't caught, they often weren't shy about describing their exploits on the net. In other words, most of these guys "have a past" in the indictable sense. The FBI has lesser positions for computer experts and technicians, but if you aren't a Special Agent, you don't have much influence on decisions. This is why the FBI has such primitive computer technology.

FBI computer experts, who were not special agents, have urged upgrades for decades. But too many Special Agents were not all that computer literate and little progress was made. After several humiliations during the 1990s, the FBI finally undertook a major effort to get current with computer technology. This meant spending $1.1 billion to catch up in the computer technology department, including $76 million to computerize a billion paper documents that are currently very difficult to search. Both of these program ran into problems, largely because of leadership problems at, and near, the top.

The FBI has little choice but to move forward. Even before September 11, 2001, they were in a fight with the Department of Defense over who would defend America from attacks via the Internet. Incredibly, the FBI won that fight. But now they have to deliver the technical services, and technical people, to make that work. At the moment, the FBI continues to slog forward. There are some bright spots, as tech savvy Special Agents rise through the ranks, and provide the technical leadership that the bureau has long lacked. But the FBI is far from being a leader in the use of technology to combat crime. Oh, and everyone is supposed to have their own FBI email box by the end of 2006. That's more than thirty years after email was invented.

 


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