FBI on quest for cool to lure fresh hacker tal­ent skep­ti­cal about it

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Andrea Peterson

“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.

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