How the FBI is transforming to tackle crime and terrorism in a digital age

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 15, 2014
Richard Haley explained that the Bureau can no longer just look within its four walls to get the answers it needs. The FBI now has to partner with the private sector and share data to catch the criminals.

One of the most interesting moments for me at Pegasystems' annual user conference in Washington DC last week was getting the opportunity to hear the FBI's

CFO, Richard Haley, talk about how the century old organisation is in the process of transforming itself in order to fight crime in a digital age. Being a Brit, most of my understanding of the FBI comes from what I have seen on US TV shows and films, and so it was quite cool to hear and see somebody in real-life at the top of the chain (and note – not the CIO) talk about how changes in digital technologies are impacting the way that the Bureau is run. And let me tell you, it's not very Hollywood. Not only is the organisation having to shift its processes from paper to digital, but a huge cultural transition is going on that requires that agents no longer keep their contacts and sources close to their chests, but share data with other organisations that may have some helpful clues.

Haley said that the digital transformation was sparked by the tragic events of September 11th, where the Bureau recognised that in order to prevent such large scale terrorist attacks occurring in the future, it would have to look outside its four walls for information and data on suspects that may be plotting against the United States. He said:

“The Bureau, a 106 year old organisation, really has been going through a transformation over the past 14 years as our mission changed from being what was historically a reactive, crime fighting organisation, where an event or something would happen and we would respond to that crime scene. We would then start an investigative process that was very linear and very paper orientated. If a crime occurred in the north-east, we would normally try and solve it in the north-east. 

“If you think about Bonnie and Clyde, on a good day they could maybe rob one, two, three banks if they were really aggressive. Today, someone in their underwear, in their bedroom, in another country can rob 2,000 banks in less than 20 minutes. Up until not too long ago we had a phone, a grey metal desk and not a lot of sharing going on and over the last decade and a half we have been on a journey of how we can better use data.”

Three areas of focus

Haley gave an anecdote about how he once heard the CIO of Lego giving a talk about developing a new Lego castle kit, where they consulted with the best and smartest Lego engineers (what a job!?) about how to create it. However, when they created the final product and put it on the shelves, kids were unhappy with the fact that a Lego dragon had not been included. Haley said that the FBI has been trying to avoid this mistake and trying to ensure that the organisation speaks to its agents and its customers (yes, it does have some) and gives them the applications they need to do their job as efficiently as possible. He said:

“For example, building applications that they can use at their desk, that doesn't help them 90% of the time when they are out on the street investigating.”

With this mindset, the Bureau found three areas of focus for its digital transformation:

  • The investigative side – This is what most of us understand the FBI does as a national law enforcement agency. Haley and the technology team want to ensure that agents get the data they need, when they need it, making sure that location isn't a hindrance. The Bureau has over 400 location in the US and over 70 abroad, and as a result requires that information can flow freely and quickly. Haley said:

“We have 80,000 police officers in this country, if one of them approaches someone and they do not have the data that that person is a suspected criminal, or terrorist, what could happen if they let them go? Or worse yet, what if something happened at that site? So it's that investigative piece, the push to be proactive and get to the crime before the crime occurs.”

  • Customer service – Personally, I wouldn't have thought that most of the FBI's customers were in any position to start filing customer complaint forms, but I didn't realise the scope of what the Bureau does. For instance, the FBI provides a clearing service for fingerprint databases across the United States, so if someone commits a crime in Florida, they will be picked up in California, even though the data is held at a state level. Also, the Bureau operates the gun check systems, which runs background checks on customers wanting to purchase a firearm – a constitutional right. The FBI doesn't want unhappy gun buying customers on its hands if it gets this wrong.
  • Back-end operations – Finally, the Bureau has also been focusing on modernising its back-end systems too. For example, it has just recently replaced a 30 year old COBOL financial system and it is in the process of ripping out an old HR system of a similar age. Haley said that if its going to focus on modernising the front end for agents, it also has to pay attention to the back-end support.

Haley said that the process of bringing the FBI into the digital age is still ongoing, and it made a lot of mistakes early on, but now it is focusing on listening to its users to prioritise development and it is trying to work in a more agile way. He said:

“Since 9/11 we have literally been on that journey. We continue trying to refine that, get a little better at it. I think early on we reacted by trying to become more digital by building a lot of systems, building a lot of hardware, but this wasn't getting us to the best solution. Now because the resources are drying up with everything that's going on with federal government, we have seen our funding drop off, we have to be much more strategic about prioritisation. 

“When we used to use waterfall projects, even if they were successful, whatever that meant, by the time we rolled them out, the landscape and the environment had changed, we would end up having to change them – it's now about a short turnaround and keeping these systems relevant and reducing the risk. We are going through that at the moment.

“We need to listen to our customers, which are the men and women out in the field using our applications. I think it's that listening piece, there's not a chance of making mistakes anymore – we can't build a system that nobody is going to use, we can't invest in products that aren't going to get us the end result, which is protecting American people.”

Becoming a sharing organisation

The final point that Haley wanted to make was with regard to sharing information with organisations that perhaps haven't traditionally worked with the FBI (or traditionally wouldn't have wanted to). He said that for any major incident, any large criminal event that may occur in the future, it is likely that information about the individuals involved could be legally obtained and readily available on databases held by organisations in the US, including the FBI. The way that the Bureau is going to identify these individuals, is by partnering with other organisations. He said:

“It's about how do we connect those dots prior to that major event occurring? And if you look at the cyber attacks that we have been dealing with that are on the rise - it's not just us doing that, it's about partnership with others – including the private sector, the banks. It's about connecting the dots in terms of what's available in your data and what's available in our data.


“However, you are talking about a cultural shift, a huge cultural shift . Traditionally if you had an informant, that was your source of information on a particular crime, you would keep that very close, keep that in a metal desk drawer. That paradigm shifted, where it's now about partnership with your other federal law enforcement agencies, international partners, local partners, the private sector. How do we communicate with all these different entities? 

“This goes against our historical stance of: if it's not built inside the FBI, you can't use it. Looking outside our organisation and recognising that somebody else has already built a better mousetrap, let's leverage that. If you look at what happened in the days after the Boston bombing, how we communicated that data, that data was coming from all types of sources, not just law enforcement, but the public. How do you take that information, ingest it, get it back out so that you can make timely solutions. If that's not happening, you are missing the market.”

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