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FBI Deputy Director, Special Agent in Charge of Boston Division Discuss Bureau’s Cyber Concentration, Recruiting Efforts

Five years ago, the FBI put out a release noting that the most sought-after recruits possessed a very 21st century skillset: cyber expertise. One of the institutions that jumped at the opportunity was Boston College, and now the University can lay claim to the Woods College of Advancing Studies’ masters program in Cybersecurity Policy and Governance and the annual Cyber Security Conference.

Inextricably linked to both programs is the public and private sector’s push to both raise awareness about the dangers of cybersecurity and networking: The conference has hosted either the FBI director or deputy director as its keynote speaker in each of its three years, always hosts the Boston division’s special agent in charge, and features higher-ups from most government agencies and the leading private sector cybersecurity companies.

But the bureau is concentrating specifically on working with universities both in the research field and trying to bring in as much fresh talent on the cyber front as possible.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said that the younger generation emerging from universities is exactly what the FBI needs at the moment. Bowdich said that adding the expertise that younger generations have gained, especially in the cyber field, is vital to keeping the FBI ahead of the curve.

“I would tell [younger generations] we need them,” he said. “And I would tell them do not get down on their country, because this is the world’s greatest country, and in order to keep it that way, we need people who want to serve their country in any form or fashion—it doesn’t have to be in the FBI or in the military but that is one thing I will always tell younger generations: find a way to serve your country, find a way to give back.”

Bowdich noted in his keynote that the FBI loses .08 percent of agents outside of termination or retirement. The deputy director said he’s proud of that number, but he was also quick to point out that despite the FBI losing between 2.1 and 2.4 percent of cyber agents to early outs, he’s still proud of that statistic as well.

The demand for cyber experts worldwide is unceasing, according to Bowdich, and holding onto cyber talent is a difficult proposition in 2019, making it more important than ever that potential agents and analysts understand how significant their services are to the public sector. That said, the deputy director did joke that those entering the cyber arena should ignore calls from other government agencies. But Bowdich quickly turned to a more serious note, saying that the shared mission between the FBI and other government agencies is what has made inter-agency collaboration easier than ever.

But the link between the bureau and colleges runs far deeper. Bowdich mentioned in his keynote that more and more often, FBI field offices are working closely with universities on research initiatives and to protect important info colleges have that bad actors would have an interest in.

“More and more we are doing academia outreach, true, in depth threat discussions with academia,” Bowdich said. “It’s much more of a sharing environment, rightly so, it’s a different culture.”

Bowdich mentioned in his keynote the importance of maintaining relationships with universities around the country, and Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston field office, expanded on that idea—a partnership between the FBI and a university can go far beyond research, according to the special agent. He cited BC as the best example: The FBI’s relationship with BC began under the auspices of the bureau helping Kevin Powers, the founding director of the Woods College of Advancing Studies’ masters program in Cybersecurity Policy and Governance, develop the masters program in the first place, according to Bonavolonta.

That process began with Powers and the FBI’s Boston field office teaming up to develop the curriculum, but quickly built out into both the now-annual Cyber Security conference, as well as members of the Boston cyber team working part-time as instructors within the masters program, Bonavolonta explained. The end result is that the FBI gets to work with BC on education, networking, and using a joint platform once a year to discuss a major bureau priority featuring experts from across government agencies and the private sector.

Beyond that, Bonavolonta said that the FBI has an Academic Alliance Program. It allows FBI personnel to meet with “executive level members” of academia to share threat information and discuss how the FBI can, with help from academia, work to find better ways to prevent and fight cyber security issues.

Bowdich added that he was recently at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, as a part of a national partnership to speak to a cyber symposium similar to the one BC puts on every year. By engaging in discussions with universities about threat intelligence, Bowdich said he believes that colleges can better protect themselves from the predators that are present both domestically and internationally online.

Both Bowdich and Bonavolonta noted that when they go to colleges and career fairs, what they fall back on when selling the bureau is far from surprising, yet integral to the agency’s pursuit of excellence.

“We do have a mission that I believe is second to none,” Bowdich said. “And we do consistently appeal to their patriotism, and we tell them you are needed right now, your country and your communities throughout that country. … We’ve had some that have left and they try to come back because they really missed the mission.”

Bowdich and Bonavolonta both noted that working for the FBI is not limited to being a special agent, since the ways in which the bureau supports its agents varies greatly.

“The local level identifies where they want to go to try to recruit that talent,” Bowdich said. “What we’re looking for is talented … individuals to come into the organization and demonstrate a very committed approach to serving the country. And serving your country can be in many forms and fashions. Doesn’t have to be as an FBI agent, there’s a number of positions that we have—from analytical personnel to include all realms of support staff that help the organization.”

Bowdich and Bonavolonta explained that they’re searching for proficiency in languages, computer science, and expertise in STEM disciplines when they look at cyber candidates. But, since personnel expertise needs to vary in order to support investigations and intelligence gathering in the field, the two noted that the bureau is also looking at qualifications that have nothing to do with the disciplines students or people looking for entry level jobs typically associate with cyber security.

Ultimately, judgement and commitment are the factors that Bowdich and Bonavolonta are looking closest at—those factors are what qualifies candidates for taking the stand in cases.

“People say, the government doesn’t fire people,” Bowdich said. “We do. There is a red line for this organization, and it’s called candor. … There are certain things you cannot overcome in this organization, and candor is one of them.”

Bowdich mentioned that judgement in the 21st century is tested from a young age, thanks to social media—he noted that the FBI has seen social media behaviors that have knocked candidates out of contention for a job.

Bonavolonta urged students who have even the slightest inkling of an interest in working for the FBI is to research the different opportunities the FBI offers. He mentioned the 10-week, paid Honors College Internship program that the bureau has concentrated on building in recent years as the type of program that might interest current college students, one that would give them a chance to better learn what working at a government agency is like.

For upperclassmen, the program does offer jobs to participating students if they perform well, according to Bonavolonta.

Bonavolonta cited the common denominator for successful job candidates is commitment. He noted that not every candidate who is interested in cyber comes into the FBI a through-and-through cyber security expert. With training and experience, the bureau offers the opportunity to get certified in a wider variety of cyber areas, according to Bonavolonta.

He noted that not every candidate who is interested in cyber comes into the FBI a total cyber security expert. Through training and experience, the bureau provides the opportunity to get certified in a wider variety of cyber areas, according to Bonavolonta.

Featured Image Courtesy of University Communications / Lee Pelligrini

March 11, 2019

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