FBI Must Fix Outdated IT Infrastructure

Before the FBI can improve its ability to defend the U.S. from another round of terrorist attacks, it must undertake the herculean task of overhauling an IT infrastructure that's years behind current technology.

In a series of congressional hearings and public statements this month, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the nation's top crime-fighting and antiterrorism agency "must become better at . . . applying technology to support investigations." The FBI's current IT infrastructure can't support the robust analytical capacity needed by agents in the field, he said, adding that the bureau has proposed in its 2003 budget the formation of an Investigative Technologies Division.

The FBI's IT deficit revolves around a lack of data mining and financial-record and communication-analysis tools, Mueller said. In addition, the agency's current infrastructure is geared primarily toward data management and not analysis, say former agents. Specifically, the bureau needs artificial intelligence tools, such as those in use at the CIA and the National Security Agency, that will allow agents to conduct searches through large numbers of documents and media formats and identify patterns and relationships. One FBI agent referred to it as a need for big iron - mainframe computers capable of crunching through volumes of data.

In addition, it will be necessary to deploy a secure intranet to provide connectivity between the bureau other agencies, Mueller said.

"I would feel comfortable saying the bureau is a decade behind current information technology," said James Williams, director of security solutions at Omaha-based managed security services firm Solutionary Inc. and a former FBI agent who served in the computer intrusion squad at the bureau's San Francisco field office. Williams also cited insufficient staffing of personnel with IT skills as a major obstacle to effective information sharing and analysis.

"There's a desperate need for a more up-to-date technology infrastructure," he said. Unfortunately, he added, "good ideas are developed in pockets" throughout the bureau's 56 field offices nationwide.

One of the major IT changes to take place at the FBI in recent years has been the deployment of an electronic case management system.

"But it needs quite a bit of improvement," said Charles Neal, director of the Cyber Attack Tiger Team at Exodus Communications Inc. in Los Angeles. Neal is a former FBI agent who managed the well-known Kevin Mitnick hacker investigation. "I basically had to use one of the lower-paid employees" because agents couldn't open their own case files, he said.

Secure Networking a Must

James Ring, a retired FBI supervisory agent who's now director of the investigative services group at Boston-based law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart, said he couldn't figure out how to use the case management system "because it was too user-unfriendly."

William Harrod, director of the Investigative Response Division at TruSecure Corp. in Herndon, Va., is a 14-year veteran of the FBI, where he served as a supervisory forensic computer specialist and coordinated investigative information management during crisis responses. According to Harrod, "the ability to do secure networking, both voice and data, is critically needed."

"They built a Chinese wall around their systems so nobody could get in, but nobody could get out either," added Ring. "It's a mentality of security with no application of risk vs. reward analysis."

Ring also cited a culture that has yet to adapt to the realities of the Information Age. "Headquarters has always been involved in the work of field agents," he said. "They don't want anybody communicating without headquarters knowing about it. That system does not work given the speed of today's communications technologies."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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