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Feds Turn to Black Hats

Top cybercops want hackers to stop beating them and join them

LAS VEGAS -- Black Hat USA -- Some of the top names in law enforcement raided this hacker haven yesterday, but they weren't out to make a bust -- they were here to ask for help.

Nearly a dozen top-ranking government and law enforcement officials -- including the head of the FBI's cybercrime division -- spent an hour with Black Hat attendees in a session called "Meet the Fed." Their message: Work with us, not against us.

"We'd like to ask you for your help and your expertise when we call you," Jim Finch, assistant director of the FBI in charge of cybercrime, told the attendees. "We'd also like to get some of you to come and work for us."

The agency officials -- which included execs from the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and even NASA -- all conceded that they don't have enough skilled security people to adequately fight cybercrime.

"Sometimes we feel like we're a bunch of sheriffs on horseback, trying to catch bad guys who are driving Maseratis," said Andrew Fried, a special agent who works cybercrime for the IRS.

The agency representatives agreed that their current approach -- trying to teach law enforcement agencies about computers -- isn't working.

"There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and more than half of them have 25 officers or less," noted Jim Christy, director of futures exploration at the Department of Defense's Cyber Crime Center. "Most local law enforcement agencies spell computer with a 'k,' and so do most police chiefs. I'll probably get in trouble for saying that, but it's true."

The feds would like to get some security experts and teach them to be agents, rather than the other way around, the officials said. "It takes more training to be a computer security expert than it does to be a cop," Fried said. "The problem is getting people like [the Black Hat attendees] to join up -- we have long hours and we don't pay a lot, compared to what you can get in the private sector. But we do give people a chance to be part of history, a part of something bigger than themselves."

Aside from the staffing problem, the cybercrime officials said they face many problems with boundaries -- both between countries and between agencies.

"The fact is that we have better relationships with some governments than with others, and that can make it difficult to investigate crime in some countries," said Finch. "We have a better chance of improving the security of a particular network -- such as the banking system -- than we do of building relationships with law enforcement in certain other countries."

While cooperation between law enforcement agencies in different countries is a problem, cooperation between state, local, and federal agencies is no picnic, either, Christy observed. "Before law enforcement can share data with the private sector, we have to get law enforcement to share data with law enforcement."

The agencies are close to completing a national repository for cybercrime data, but it will be some time before a subset of that data is made available to private-sector security pros, Christy said.

With the shortage of manpower, jurisdiction, and inter-agency cooperation, there will continue to be a large number of computer crimes that simply are never investigated, the officials conceded.

"For [the FBI], our top priority has to be those crimes that affect national security," Finch said. "The threats to our critical systems and to industries like banking are going to get the most time and resources. For us, there are the cyber threats to national security -- and then there's everything else."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Secure DNA

    Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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