Study Shows: FBI Alienates Industry Security Experts
L. Taylor - August 21, 2000 — Originally published at TechnologyEvaluation.Com


Fighting cybercrime is complex and time-consuming. One case can involve a multitude of computer systems, networks, and administrators, and requires the cooperation of all system owners, and sometimes many nations, in order to find the perpetrator. Due to their love of technology, their education, training, and experience, it is not uncommon for security industry professionals to be far more qualified and adept at resolving cybercrime than law enforcement.

Though the FBI thrives on reaping assistance from industry security professionals, many industry security experts are reluctant to help the Federal law enforcement agency when it comes to cybercrime. Though it makes it a lot more difficult for the FBI to track cybercriminals without the help and cooperation of private industry, savvy security experts are not lining up to help. This lack of respect that industry professionals have for the FBI results in cases taking longer to crack, and many going unresolved. It also often leaves the Department of Justice looking like a three-ring circus.


Typically, when the FBI requests assistance from a security professional, the kind of assistance they require is extensive which is to be expected, given the circumstances. They need to understand the network topologies, the systems affected, the points of entry, and need to locate, collect, and analyze all the corresponding log files. All this data gathering and analysis takes time.

Private industry exists in order to create revenue. In this burgeoning Internet economy, information technology resources are scarce. Inside of that IT circle, information security resources are still more scarce. Taking time out from daily security duties to assist the FBI in a case that may not have directly impacted their own company's bottom line can actually end up costing a company a significant amount of lost revenue. It's often more cost effective to tell law enforcement, "No, no logs on any of our systems that would be useful to you" than spend hours, days, or weeks, combing through log files, systems, and backup tapes, only to hand them over to a law enforcement agency that in many cases does not know what to do with them.

Unless log files have been subpoenaed, and therefore must be turned over as evidence, there is often no return on investment when a company spends hours combing through log files for data that may or may not be helpful or appreciated.

It is not unusual for a company to charge $200 an hour for security consulting services. If a security consultant spends a whole day assisting an FBI agent, this can amount to $1600.00 a day in lost revenue for the consultant's employer. For a service provider, a day without a security engineer can also open them up to potential lawsuits, lost customers, and lost future revenue streams. In short, it costs companies exorbitant amounts of money to assist the FBI. Because companies allocate resources to assisting the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, they need to have this "free consulting" respected and rewarded. In the course of our study, we communicated with a wide-selection of industry security experts from around the country. Some of these experts are ex-FBI employees. In doing so, we would like to retell some of the experiences that have been communicated to us, and would like to share certain trends that we have identified that seem to hamper the cybercrime investigation process.

Why We Don't Help the FBI

Case 1: A Security Director at a well-known Internet company was plagued with some serious domain hijacking problems. Domain hijacking is when someone who does not own the dot-com name takes it over through technical DNS manipulations, and uses it for their own, sometimes subversive, purposes. In essence, this is kidnapping a domain name. This Director spent a significant amount of time and resources identifying the perpetrator of the attacks, down to documenting the name, address, and phone number. This information was turned over to the FBI's Wasington, D.C. headquarters office to investigate.

The Director justified the case by presenting a considerable amount of evidence that supported $2-3million worth of damages. The domain that was hijacked was a very well known and lucrative domain name. A week after the incident, the Director met with the FBI and submitted the initial report. In the next 9 months, the only thing he heard was that according to the FBI agents, the work the director's team had done saved the FBI several months of time. The information in the Incident Report submitted to the FBI included the suspect's name, address, parent's names, and almost everything required to obtain a timely prosecution.

After nine months, someone from the FBI contacted the Director, asking him to re-submit the report, telling him that the report needed to be submitted in person. (The Director had submitted the report in person nine months earlier in the initial meeting.) The FBI agent said he would come to the Director's facility to pick up the report. The Director was waiting for the agent with yet another copy of this same Security Incident Report.

When this FBI agent arrived, he already had the report in his hands (due to the in-person submission nine months earlier). He handed it to the Director, and then said, "Now I need you to give it back to me so I can testify that you submitted this report in person." The FBI agent handed the report that the Director had written nine months previously back to him, and instructed the Director to now give it back to the FBI agent. The FBI agent then thanked the Director and said that now the FBI could begin looking into the case. As of June 2000, the Director has still not heard anything back from the FBI.

Questions that come to mind are the following:

  • Why is the FBI not willing to receive reports from the public and private sector electronically? The likely reason is that they do not use strong encryption and therefore cannot adequately authenticate the original document owner.
  • After spending an enormous amount of time and resources identifying the perpetrator, why was this Director not contacted for 9 months? Typically, professionals who take the time to submit detailed reports are interested in seeing a case come to closure.
  • Was the case even investigated? Not to the Director's knowledge.
  • Was the case documented in an Incident Tracking Database?
  • Were charges pressed? Was anyone prosecuted? Not according to the Director.
  • Is this perpetrator now hijacking other domain names?

The Director has told TEC that he will not be taking the time to research and hand-over evidence to the FBI in future incidents. His perception is that, "The FBI is woefully under-equipped."

In the IT world, things happen quickly - this includes engineering developments and security breaches. The IT sector cannot afford to play bureaucratic reporting games to the FBI that in the long run produce no results. The FBI needs to be digitally equipped to securely accept information sent to them electronically. A trend that we noticed in talking to information security experts is that the wheels of justice are very slow.

Case 2: An Internet dot-org group (a non-profit Internet company) that was being managed by security experts was trying to assist the FBI in the February 9th, distributed denial of service attacks. They went through the trouble of putting up a private link, just for the purpose of providing information and evidence to the FBI. They provided the FBI with IRC chat logs, and names and contact information of people who had actually confessed to participating in the crime. The dot-org group said that the FBI chose to not even access the link with the details of the crime.

Questions that come to mind are the following:

  • Why did the FBI choose not to access the electronic evidence?
  • Was the information entered into an Incident Response Database?
  • Has the perpetrator been instigating new denial of service attacks?

Looking at Cases 1 and 2, we may surmise that if evidence is not presented in person, the FBI is not interested in reviewing it.

Case 3: An Internet dot-org group identified multiple perpetrators of web-site defacement - digital graffiti. They presented this information to the FBI, and never heard anything back.

Questions that come to mind are the following:

  • Was the information entered into an Incident Response Database?
  • Was the case even investigated?
  • Has the perpetrator been defacing more web-sites?

Case 4: A seasoned security professional became aware that his name was included on a database of "well-known hackers" that was later sold to the FBI by a competitor. The security professional has never engaged in unethical hacking activities, and feels that his name was libelously and inappropriately included in this database of "well-known hackers" for spiteful, competitive reasons. Since the FBI purchased this database that was established without verification, the security professional feels that the FBI in conjunction with the begrudging competitor, may have potentially damaged his professional reputation. In light of this transgression, the security professional is no longer interested in assisting the FBI.

Questions that come to mind are the following:

  • How can a professional find out if his/her name is being erroneously catalogued in an FBI database?
  • What sort of verification processes does the FBI use when purchasing non-qualified information?
  • What other kinds of non-qualified information of criminal activity does the FBI purchase?

Case 5: A security expert spent an enormous amount of time doing forensic work and analysis in tracking down a well-publicized hacking incident. The information was reported to the FBI, only to have the FBI take credit for doing the expert analysis, while never paying a cent for consulting services.

Case 6: A security contractor who was working for a federal agency had the website that he was administering defaced by a cyber vandal. Instead of helping him identify the perpetrator, the FBI questioned him for hours, suggesting that a colleague of his had participated in the incident. Although it was never proven, the FBI insisted there had been some sort of duplicity on the contractor's part, insinuating that he himself was somehow involved in the crime in question. The real perpetrator was never identified, and the security contractor no longer wants any association with the FBI.

Case 7: A well-known ISP refuses to install the "Carnivore" surveillance tracking device citing implementation and administration issues.

Questions that come to mind are the following:

  • Why doesn't the FBI realize that asking one entity to invade the privacy of others does not usually build relationships or trust? Most ISPs have contractual privacy agreements with their customers that they must abide by. Installing a device such as the Carnivore would in many cases be a breach of customer contractual agreements.
  • If the FBI wants an ISP to perform some sort of service for them, why are they not willing to become a legitimate paying customer and pay for implementation, administration, and overhead costs?

Inside the FBI

One security professional told us that he found it easy to work with the FBI, but conceded that he did this by circumventing the bureaucratic processes and accessing resources through back doors at very high levels. He went on to say that the FBI's cybercrime task force is clearly under-equipped.

The FBI does not always do a good job of "marketing" what it does well. Naturally, bad news always receives more attention in the press than good news. Our research has indicated that one thing that the FBI does well is investigate cyberpedophilia. Though many incidences of cyberpedophilia go unreported, of the cases that are reported, the FBI has an impressive track record of apprehending the perpetrators most of the time. Almost all cyberpedophilia arrests lead to people going to jail. The FBI (and U.S. Customs) prosecutions in this area have approximately a 99% success rate.[1] Keeping America's children safe is an initiative that an overwhelming majority of security professionals support and are often eager to help in this area.

[1] Source: Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, by Parry Aftab

Recommendations for Resolution

  • If the FBI requires the assistance of private industry to conduct investigations, they should pay for it like everyone else. Providing free services to Federal agencies is not something that businesses are setup to do. Managing security incidents is a business. If the FBI needs to outsource, they should be paying for this service. If the FBI pays for the necessary IT services they require, they will likely see a resounding change in the willingness of information security professionals to assist them. The FBI does not manage incidents - they investigate and prosecute suspects that may cause such incidents.
  • The FBI needs to start giving credit where it is due. If an industry professional does all the leg work in tracking down a cybercriminal for free, they should be credited appropriately for their expert analysis and the time they contribute. Begging others for clues, and then taking the technology credits for doing the expert analysis done by someone else does not go over well with industry professionals.
  • Industry professionals who understand information security, also understand technology privacy implications more than most people. They are somewhat leery of involving government agencies in general due to the belief that in the future, true privacy will be available only for those with the privilege of a technology education.
  • Lawmakers need to understand technology in order to regulate it. Most lawmakers and Federal agencies are to a large degree, technology illiterate. Knowledge helps one gain respect. Law enforcement needs to build productive relationships with America's IT security community to better increase their knowledge base.
  • Our research indicates that the metropolitan FBI offices are fighting and managing cybercrime somewhat independently of each other, each having their own processes for investigations. These processes need to be standardized across all FBI offices in order for the FBI to become truly effective. Private industry needs to understand the investigation process in order to provide better assistance. A former employee of the FBI commented that the FBI cybercrime unit is surprisingly decentralized.
  • On occasions, when private industry has proactively sought out the FBI for assistance, it has been reported that various FBI offices seem uninterested in assisting private industry - an attitude that has an off-putting effect. If an information security engineer has had a previous experience where the FBI has shown no interest in providing assistance, the FBI can expect a similar attitude from the information security engineer in the future.