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38% of FBI applicants can't clear background checks and that's bad for cybersecurity


38% of FBI applicants can't clear background checks and that's bad for cybersecurity

WATCH  | FBI screening cuts out some hacker talent

Getting FBI clearance

The FBI says 4,200 of the 10,800 candidates it put through background checks in fiscal 2015 couldn't get cleared. Hackers say a chunk of those who can't pass the check could actually be a huge help in the nation's cybersecurity fight. Circa and its partner, Full Measure, discovered the bureau's issue is some applicants just don't fit the mold of the ideal government crime fighter. 

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What John Chase could dig up on the average person is amateur hour compared to his real capabilities.  He's a hacker, the kind fielding calls from the feds after doing something pretty huge. 


Chase took on ISIS as part of the hacker group, Anonymous. He wrote a program to comb social media for accounts belonging to the terrorist organization. Chase is so good that ISIS put a bounty out for him after he publicized the list.

I mean I don't know if I would necessarily go to Syria but as far as walking out my front door, I feel pretty safe.
John Chase, hacker

Security and stability isn't really something Chase is seeking. If it was, he'd be a government worker.  Oh wait, he can't -- Chase has a conviction on his record and admits to occasionally using recreational drugs.  As a result, he's what the government considers "unclearable talent."

"The government is very unforgiving as far as those things go," Chase said.  "You have to have a perfectly clean slate and unfortunately, people with a perfectly clean slate are not necessarily people who understand how these things are done."

Desperately seeking cyber talent

The federal government desperately needs cybersecurity talent. This summer, the White House put out a report saying the lack of skilled cybersecurity and IT personnel impacts its ability to protect information and assets.  

The report also said agencies across the board are so short staffed, they want to hire 3,500 people to fill critical cybersecurity and IT roles by the start of 2017. 

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Agencies like the FBI aren't exactly falling over themselves to recruit hackers with a past.  David Johnson, who leads cybersecurity operations for the agency, wants the best but he says there's a reason their background process is so tough.

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.
David Johnson, FBI

FBI dealing with old school ideas about IT talent

The FBI and other agencies with a cybersecurity focus have to fight against an old school idea when they recruit: the concept that the best talent has a college degree, wears a tie and doesn't smoke dope.  

"I think we're starting to realize maybe we're missing some of these folks and they are highly skilled," Johnson said during an interview forFull Measure and Circa. "They're really talented and we need to figure out a way to get them on board."

Making it easier to join the FBI

According to David Johnson, there is a lot of discussion about relaxing some requirements at the bureau. To bolster the workforce, they've discussed hiring people without college degrees and allowing agents to return to the bureau after they've spent time in the private sector.

Johnson says there's even been talk about relaxing the FBI's policy on pot smoking.  But that's just talk and wishful thinking for some.

38% of FBI applicants can't clear background checks and that's bad for cybersecurity

Right now, clearing the FBI's background check includes answering four critical questions. John Chase says many talented hackers could never provide the answers the feds want to hear. 

Money a major hurdle

If you really want to expand the federal cybersecurity squad, Uncle Sam is going to have to pony up some serious cash. Money is one of the biggest hurdles in getting hackers into government work.

"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."

The FBI: A Career Like No Other

WATCH  | The FBI thinks its mission can be enough to turn some hackers legit. Johnson said, "Just some of the work that they would have the opportunity to do, it's really cool and eye-opening. Name recognition can't be beat."

Hackers participate in a competition at the DefCon conference Friday, Aug. 5, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

For the moment, the FBI remains focused on college recruiting. Hackers say they need to mine the dark web, where some of the best work is being done by people who stay under the radar. They may not come in the ideal package. 

They're not walking around with a gun. They're on a computer. If this is the person qualified to do the job, they should be doing it.
John Chase, Hacker

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