FBI on quest for cool to lure fresh hacker talent skeptical about it
“The problem is you’re ‘the Man.’ ”
The FBI has struggled for years to attract enough fresh hacker talent to defend America’s computers. One problem? A culture clash between elite coders attracted to casual — or even rebellious — workplaces and the agency’s bureaucratic reputation. Or, as FBI Director James Comey recalled his daughter’s explanation of the issue during a recent speech: “Dad, the problem is you’re ‘ the Man,’ ” she said. “Who would want to work for ‘the Man?’ ”
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 recent remarks at a Symantec Government Symposium.
The agency hasn’t added “beanbags and granola and a lot of whiteboards” — stereotypical hallmarks of West Coast startup culture — at least not yet, Comey said. “But we’re working very hard at marching in that direction so that when this talent comes into our organization we are open to having them make us better,” he said.
Despite outreach at highprofile hacker conferences, recruitment of tech whiz kids by law enforcement and intelligence agencies has been hampered in recent years. One issue is that they have to compete with private sector gigs that can offer better salaries and benefits.
But fallout over surveillance programs revealed in Edward Snowden documents and the FBI’s legal battle to get Apple to help it break into a locked iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino, Calif., rampage has also made government work a hard sell to some.
And another cultural staple of hacker culture has further limited the FBI’s recruitment pool: marijuana use. Comey addressed the issue during remarks at the White Collar Crime Institute in 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cybercriminals, and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said.
The FBI was “grappling with the question” of how to approach cannabis and coders at the time, he said. But current hiring rules still require applicants to be pot-free for three years before joining the agency — so it doesn’t look like the FBI’s quest for cool has pushed it to change its tune about blazed candidates just yet.