Veteran FBI Cyber Special Agent shares what it’s like to work for the Bureau and how to get started.
You’ve always dreamed about a job with the FBI. And now you’re thinking about a master’s cybersecurity degree.
Great move. The demand for cybersecurity professionals is at an all-time high, particularly in the nation’s leading law enforcement agency.
Late last year, the FBI announced a major initiative to hire certified cyber experts to investigate cyber crimes – website hacks, intrusion, data theft, botnets and denial of service attacks – a top priority for the Bureau.
“Cyber permeates every aspect of what we do, whether it’s counterterrorism, criminal investigations or traditional cyber attacks,” said Robert Anderson, Jr., executive assistant director for the Bureau’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch. “That’s why these types of people are so important to get into the pipeline and come into our organization.”
So what’s it like to be a special agent for the FBI?
FBI Special Agent Lawrence Wolfenden, who is assigned to the FBI’s Cyber Squad in Tampa, has been a frequent guest lecturer at Saint Leo. We asked Agent Woldfenden to share his experience and insights working as a cyber expert for the Bureau.
When did you begin working for the FBI?
Wolfenden: It’s been 24 years now. I started with the Bureau as a Special Agent in July 1991. After 16 weeks at our academy in Quantico, where 29 other agents and I learned the basics of being a federal law enforcement officer, I was assigned sent to the White-Collar Crime Squad in our Louisville (Kentucky) division.
What brought you to the Bureau’s Tampa field office?
Wolfenden: After seven years in Louisville, I received a specialty transfer to the Tampa field office to work on a team investigating a national chain of hospitals which had been defrauding Medicare. I have been assigned to the division’s Cyber Squad since it was formed in 2002.
Do you focus on a particular area of cyber crime?
Wolfenden: My primary responsibility is to investigate computer and/or network intrusions, primarily those where a foreign government is suspected of targeting U.S. businesses or government or military systems, although I do conduct some straight-up criminal investigations, such as fraud, website defacements or theft of information.
What’s it like to work as a cyber expert for the FBI?
Wolfenden: Busy. And varied. In addition to their own case work – interviewing victims, reviewing log files, examining emails and network activity, digital storage and memory forensics, and querying databases and public records to identify subjects – agents with the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to be an effective cyber investigator will also be frequently consulted by other agents who don’t have those skills, but nonetheless have investigative targets who operate online.
Can you give me an example?
Wolfenden: Take TOR, for instance, a framework for providing anonymity online that is used by drug dealers, thieves, kidnappers, pedophiles and terrorists to conduct their business. The agents in our Violent Crime Squad may need to prove that “Bennie the Bomber” is the person who sent a note threatening to blow up a grocery store if he’s not paid $100,000 within the next 72 hours. The Violent Crime agents will seek assistance from the Cyber Squad for technologies and tools to circumvent or tunnel through the technologies used by TOR to locate “Bennie” for a face-to-face discussion.
There’s a great deal of satisfaction that comes from being a part of arresting someone who thought they were untraceable.
Is there a typical path to becoming an agent in the Cyber Division?
Wolfenden: I’m not sure there’s any typical way; we come from a variety of places. My background is as an accountant who happened to have some knowledge and aptitude for programing and digital forensics, but the FBI’s Cyber Division agents have worked as system administrators, database analysts, software designers, coders, engineers, teachers – you name it.
Are there some basic requirements?
Wolfenden: There is the commonality of a four-year degree and two or three years’ work experience – although certain degree programs and advanced degrees allow the work requirements to be waived. The FBIJobs.gov website provides details about specific eligibility requirements. We are seeing, however, that as more colleges and universities begin offering specialized degrees in information system security, more of our cyber agents will have those degrees and be running at close to full speed right from the start.
Do cyber special agents carry guns and arrest people?
Wolfenden: We do. We are full-fledged law enforcement officers. Although I’m assigned to the Cyber Squad and tasked with investigating hacking, I’m still fundamentally a federal cop. And whether it’s our own cases or a major takedown, cyber special agents are expected to be ready to put handcuffs on bad guys, execute search warrants, conduct surveillance, testify in court and perform all the other duties you’d expect of law enforcement.
How is the job changing?
Wolfenden: Every new technology brings new challenges because it brings new opportunities for criminals to exploit. The FBI agent’s primary job is to collect evidence that allows someone to be prosecuted. The legal landscape in which we work is constantly changing, and those changes are often a double-edged sword. When an ISP, for example, is restricted from revealing the identity of someone who used a particular IP address at a particular time, it does enhance the privacy of that person. But it does so whether that person was using the IP address for legitimate purposes or criminal reasons. We have to strike a balance.
Are there opportunities for women in the FBI’s Cyber Division?
Wolfenden: Women are well represented within the FBI, from street agent to senior management at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. And while there’s certainly not an even split between men and women in the Cyber Division, I have worked with a number of women in the Cyber Division, and can tell you that if you’re a good investigator with solid technical skills, you are going to do well regardless if you are male or female. It’s been my experience in the FBI that competence and initiative are what matter most.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a cyber career with the FBI?
Wolfenden: I would stress that they should realize that coming into the Bureau as a Special Agent means you are first and foremost an agent. It’s quite possible – regardless of your degree – that you will be assigned to work non-cyber cases. You can make your personal desires known, but we operate under the long-established concept of “Needs of the Bureau.” What I’ve found, though, is that regardless of your specific assignment, if you have a particular skill or ability and you demonstrate a willingness to work hard, your supervisors will try to get you into a position where you provide optimum value to the FBI.
Wolfenden: One of the aspects of working for the FBI is that you’re amongst a group of people who share a common set of core values. There are situations where you have to trust your fellow agent with your life, and every time I’ve been in one of those situations, I’ve had no second thoughts or concerns about the agent who has my back.
National Cyber Security Awareness Month
This post is one in a series in recognition of National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Since 2004, the Department of Homeland Defense and the National Cyber Security Alliance have designated October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month. For more information, visit StaySafeOnline.org.
Image credits: Gil C on Shutterstock.com; Saint Leo University Communications; and courtesy Lawrence Wolfenden
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