One of the greatest threats facing the United States is cyber attack, with everything from government databases to banks proven vulnerable. We’re sending more troops to fight ISIS on the ground, but when it comes to recruiting soldiers to do battle in the war on the web, the federal government could be missing some of the best talent.
John Chase is never going to fit the mold of a buttoned down FBI agent. He didn’t go to college. He admits he’s used recreational drugs. And he has a criminal record.
Chase does have one vital component in his skill set: in just one day he developed a program to dig through social media data and expose thousands of accounts linked to ISIS. The established hacker published a list that went viral, disabling one of the organization’s most successful propaganda and recruiting tools.
“It was scary,” Chase said during an interview with Full Measure, “It was definitely nerve racking actually. When we were writing the script and compiling the list it didn’t seem like a big deal, but when we published the list and the media became so interested, it was definitely a moment of, ‘Oh God’!”
Chase worked as part of the group, Anonymous, a loose collective of hackers. The group has become famous through a number of notorious hacks, including the infiltration of top level pro-Kremlin activists, the successful disabling of the website for Greece’s central bank and even for exposing personal information that belongs to presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
Chase claims his work drew the attention of some top level and top secret agencies interested in his particular skill set. The problem? Even if he wanted to go legit, he falls into what the government calls “unclearable talent”. The hurdle, at least when it comes to the FBI? Four questions you have to be able to answer to pass a background check. Those questions are as follows:
Have you used marijuana in the last 3 years? Have you used any other illegal drug including anabolic steroids in the last 10 years? Have you ever sold, distributed, manufactured or transported any illegal drug? Have you ever used any prescription drug or used any legally obtainable substance in a manner for which it was not intended?
“I can’t imagine one person I know who would have the skill set to actually fulfill that job that would meet all those criteria,” Chase said, “I know I wouldn’t.”
It’s that culture clash that’s keeping hackers with sorely needed skill on the dark side. And a stunning number of people can’t be cleared. According to the FBI, of the nearly 11,000 applicants from fiscal year 2015, 4,200 were discontinued during the background process.
David Johnson leads cybersecurity operations for the FBI. In a recent interview with Full Measure he said, “We’re trying to do a better job. We’re trying to increase the candidate pool. But there is that baseline we’re not willing to go below.”
Johnson says there’s a lot of discussion at the bureau about changing times and the changing threat. Hackers say that if the feds want to keep up, it may require looking at the potential talent pool a little differently. They point to social media and the dark web, a place intentionally hidden from almost all eyes and accessed by the few, with highly technical tools.
“That’s where some of them play,” Johnson explained, “There’s no doubt about that. But from my perspective, there is plenty of equally good talent that is not quite so hard to access.”
There’s another big hurdle to attracting hackers: money. And whoever said crime doesn’t pay, never hacked on the dark web.
“I think the best people are on the black hat side and a lot of that is financially driven,” Chase said, “Obviously there’s a lot more money in committing internet crimes than working for the government. A lot of people would probably forego some of that money if they had the opportunity to do something good.”
Johnson agrees that “the mission” can be a powerful point of attraction for applicants, “Just some of the work that they would have the opportunity to do, it’s really cool and eye opening. The name recognition can’t be beat.”
But it may take more than a badge to bridge the two cultures. And
somewhere between the metaphors of black hats and white hats, real talent to address a real threat may be missed.
“You’re putting somebody on a computer. They’re not walking around with a gun. They’re not arresting citizens. They’re on a computer,” Chase explained, “If this is the person that’s qualified to do the job , they should be the person that’s doing it.”