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Generalist Policing Models Remain Problematic

From the New York Time’s opinion section, this piece on“Why the F.B.I. Is so far behind on cybercrime?” reinforces the position that American law enforcement is stymied in investigating cybercrimes because:

…it lacks enough agents with advanced computer skills. It has not recruited as many of these people as it needs, and those it has hired often don’t stay long. Its deeply ingrained cultural standards, some dating to the bureau’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, have prevented it from getting the right talent.

Emblematic of an organization stuck in the past is the F.B.I.’s longstanding expectation that agents should be able to do “any job, anywhere.” While other global law enforcement agencies have snatched up computer scientists, the F.B.I. tried to turn existing agents with no computer backgrounds into digital specialists, clinging to the “any job” mantra. It may be possible to turn an agent whose background is in accounting into a first-rate gang investigator, but it’s a lot harder to turn that same agent into a top-flight computer scientist.

The “any job” mantra also hinders recruitment. People who have spent years becoming computer experts may have little interest in pivoting to another assignment. Many may lack the aptitude for — or feel uneasy with — traditional law enforcement expectations, such as being in top physical fitness, handling a deadly force scenario or even interacting with the public.

This very same issue plagues the RCMP, which also has a generalist model that discourages or hinders specialization. While we do see better business practices in, say, France, with an increasing LEA capacity to pursue cybercrime, we’re not yet seeing North American federal governments overhaul their own policing services.1

Similarly, the FBI is suffering from an ‘arrest’ culture:

The F.B.I.’s emphasis on arrests, which are especially hard to come by in ransomware cases, similarly reflects its outdated approach to cybercrime. In the bureau, prestige often springs from being a successful trial agent, working on cases that result in indictments and convictions that make the news. But ransomware cases, by their nature, are long and complex, with a low likelihood of arrest. Even when suspects are identified, arresting them is nearly impossible if they’re located in countries that don’t have extradition agreements with the United States.

In the Canadian context, not only is pursuing to arrest a problem due to jurisdiction, the complexity of cases can mean an officer spends huge amounts of time on a computer, and not out in the field ‘doing the work’ of their colleagues who are not cyber-focused. This perception of just ‘playing games’ or ‘surfing social media’ can sometimes lead to challenges between cyber investigators and older-school leaders.2 And, making things even more challenging is that the resources to train to detect and pursue Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) are relatively plentiful, whereas economic and non-CSAM investigations tend to be severely under resourced.

Though there is some hope coming for Canadian investigators, by way of CLOUD agreements between the Canadian and American governments, and the updates to the Cybercrime Convention, both will require updates to criminal law as well as potentially provincial privacy laws to empower LEAs with expanded powers. And, even with access to more American data that enables investigations this will not solve the arrest challenges when criminals are operating out of non-extradition countries.

It remains to be seen whether an expanded capacity to issue warrants to American providers will reduce some of the Canadian need for specialized training to investigate more rudimentary cyber-related crimes or if, instead, it will have a minimum effect overall.


  1. This is also generally true to provincial and municipal services as well. ↩︎
  2. Fortunately this is a less common issue, today, than a decade ago. ↩︎

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