Why It's Hard to Run a Background Check Through the Cloud


The FBI has stringent regulations for cloud companies that want to provide remote access to criminal records.

For many state cops, running a query on a suspicious character from their patrol car laptop or tablet is not an option. That's because of the stringency of FBI regulations for cloud companies that want to provide remote access to criminal records. The contractors themselves have to undergo criminal history checks and submit to special data-sharing arrangements. 

Officials with FBI Criminal Justice Information Services, or CJIS, which maintains the criminal records databases, say routine audits have turned up compliance problems.   

Negative findings concerned "authorized personnel not having the proper background check or information exchange agreement in place," FBI spokesman Stephen G. Fischer Jr. said. 

The ultimate penalty for violating bureau security rules is being cut off from accessing criminal records systems by computer.  

Every contract staffer living outside a customer's state must pass that state's background check. In effect, that means Microsoft, for instance, must run its entire "Office 365 for Government" cloud operations staff through duplicate checks in each location the company serves.

The Michigan State Police have been trying to conform to FBI policy with Microsoft for a year.

“Anyone and everyone who has to have access to [FBI] data would have to be checked” by the state and the federal government, said Dawn Brinningstaull, director of Michigan's Criminal Justice Information Center. 

Michigan and Microsoft are still hashing out a customized information exchange accord. Microsoft is “trying to do one agreement and pass it on to the 50 states,” Brinningstaull said. Right now, the two are working out language on the confidentiality of emails stored in the cloud. They also need to figure out how data breaches should be reported.  

Microsoft officials said working with Michigan has been complicated by the state's unique data protection specifications. Michigan mandates that all law enforcement information touching a computer must be treated as CJIS data. 

However, "we will in every single state background check our employees and specifically sign" CJIS security agreements, said Stuart McKee, Microsoft chief technology officer for state and local government. 

The Fog Could Lift

Despite the difficulties, providers and some states say they are eager to cut through the fog and make the cloud a crime-fighting asset.

In Indiana, state police began partnering with Web services company InterAct in 2010 and now can pull up FBI records on their laptops, iPhones, tablets and Samsung Android-based devices. When cops have millions of criminal records on hand, everywhere they go, perpetrators have little room to hide, said Kelly Dignin, systems administrator for the Indiana Integrated Public Safety Commission. 

Case in point: "An investigator working on sexual crimes against a child made an inquiry on the suspect and found three other agencies in different counties were also investigating him for similar crimes," she said. "They were able to share data and help each other strengthen their cases. Prior to the cloud [and] data sharing the investigator would have never known."

Indiana requires each contract employee to review and sign an FBI database security awareness training policy.  “A corporate partner will not always understand why they can’t have full access … this is a continuous education process," Dignin said. The state provided contractors with a secure virtual private network and routinely monitors their activity. 

But elsewhere in the country, in Florida and North Carolina for example, there remains a disconnect between the cloud and FBI security policy.

Officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have run into issues “conducting onsite audits" of cloud facilities outside Florida, department spokeswoman Samantha L. Andrews said. 

The state of North Carolina is still assessing the feasibility of entrusting FBI data to cloud providers. An increasing number of local agencies are asking about the possibility, said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina attorney general's office. "The ability to audit logs to ensure that no unauthorized access has taken place,” which is an FBI requirement, “is one of many concerns," she said.

Police in Wilkes County, N.C., one of the state's largest counties, tap into a government data center to access FBI records when in patrol cars. "I'm not comfortable with" commercial cloud hosting, county information technology systems administrator Greg Adams said. To log potential unauthorized activity, he relies on software from Bomgar, a remote access security vendor. 

With the software, "I can watch the traffic that is coming to and from the outside world,” Adams said. “I can see what’s going on in real-time and I can control who has access to it.” 

Bomgar executives say various state and local law enforcement agencies are calling the company after receiving poor marks from auditors.

"We’re getting a lot of inbound activity saying they have been through an audit from their state around CJIS requirements and they were told whatever they were doing, whatever technology they were using, whatever protocol or process they were using to provide remote control and remote support for their IT functions was not in compliance," said Scott Braynard, vice president of public sector for Bomgar.

Cracking Down on Snoops

FBI officials say that auditors now verify agencies are keeping a list of contract personnel with remote access and are ensuring they review security logs regularly. "Monitoring logs on a weekly basis is a more recent policy requirement, and there have been [negative] findings regarding this issue," Fischer said. 

Security guidelines revised last summer dedicate a new section to cloud computing. According to the updated policy, cloud providers cannot use metadata derived from CJIS “for any purposes.” They also are prohibited from scanning email or other files to accumulate analytics, conduct data mining, advertise, or improve their company’s services. 

The Texas Department of Information Resources, which manages government data and communications technology, expected to have more than 100,000 state employees on Office 365, when Microsoft officials announced a cloud agreement in February 2013.

Texas state troopers, however, are not using it. "While there are agencies in Texas that utilize the MS Cloud and MS 365, the Texas Department of Public Safety does not," department spokesman Tom Vinger said.

Although negotiations between Microsoft and Michigan have taken a while, the company is being cooperative, Brinningstaull said.

She anticipates that the final sticking point -- confidentially of Michigan data -- can be worked out, and that within about 90 days Michigan cops will be able to use Microsoft's cloud for criminal records.

More recently, California inked a deal with Microsoft to host FBI law enforcement data. Long Beach City officials in October said they voted to go with Office 365, partly because Microsoft met the bureau’s criminal records requirements. 

(Image via Artco/Shutterstock.com)