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FBI director explains agency's quest to be cool enough to recruit hackers

FBI Director James Comey — or, as his daughter might call him, "The Man."

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By ANDREA PETERSON | The Washington Post | Published: September 2, 2016

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 who are attracted to casual — or even rebellious workplaces — and the agency's bureaucratic reputation.

Or, as FBI Director James B. Comey recalled his daughter's explanation of the issue at 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 his remarks at a Symantec Government Symposium this week.

The agency hasn't added "beanbags and granola and a lot of whiteboards" — stereotypical hallmarks of West Coast start-up 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 — in a way that connects us and them to our mission more closely," he said.

Despite outreach at high profile hacker conferences like Blackhat and DefCon, 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 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., attacks 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 even 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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