FBI Unites Traditional Techniques with Tech-Driven Applications to Solve Today’s Crimes

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A top official recently reflected on how insiders are transforming old-school approaches to tackle advanced cyber crimes.

The FBI is pairing its age-old crime-solving techniques and approaches with advanced science and technology applications to accelerate investigations and outpace threats in today’s digital age, according to an official with almost three decades of experience at the agency.

“Personally I am proud that within my branch, the Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch—and really the FBI as a whole—we have several initiatives and programs that have taken older foundational concepts, and really applied them to new and emerging issues,” Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the CCRS branch recently said at an event held by the Digital Government Institute in Washington. 

Hess highlighted how a variety of the FBI’s investigative efforts have been boosted through the integration of cutting-edge technology. The agency’s criminal investigative division is responsible for all of its criminal investigations across the world, including white-collar and organized crimes, and other offenses it’s addressed since it was stood up in 1908. 

“And some of the techniques that are used are still the same that we have been using for over 110 years,” Hess said. “But some tactics have adapted with technology and we’ve built new tools to find criminal activity on the internet.” 

For example in 2018, the division formed a high-tech organized crime unit to tackle criminal activity on the darknet, and other cyber-enabled fraud. Hess said that unit made way for the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement, or J-CODE team, which was established under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a resource to hasten the detection and dismantling of major criminal enterprises that traffick opioids and other illegal narcotics through the darknet. J-CODE consists of 10 federal agencies, including the Defense Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs and Border Protection, among others. 

Between January and March of this year, the team led a major global law enforcement operation through which a variety of the involved agencies worked with Europol, or the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, specifically targeted individuals illegally buying and selling drugs and committing crimes across the dark web. 

“We brought together the combined resources, and the combined strategies and talent of all the different agencies when it came to traditional investigative techniques—things like developing human sources, undercover operations, subpoenas, search warrants, arrest warrants, surveillance, and knock and talks—and we combined that with more technical tactics,” Hess said. 

The operation subsequently led to 61 arrests of darknet criminal actors, the seizure of more than $7 million in cash, gold and cryptocurrency, and almost 300 kilograms of drugs and opioids were recovered. Now, Hess said there are numerous squads across the FBI’s field offices adopting the same techniques developed in the high-tech crime unit.  

“And we’ve seen a shift in strategy that now highlights the work being done online and on the darknet. The unit was created primarily to address opioid sells online, but what we’ve seen is a ripple effect,” Hess said. “We can now use some of the same tools and tactics that were developed by this one idea, this one small unit, to track down other types of crime.”

She also reflected on how technical applications have transformed the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit. More colloquially known as “profilers,” these individuals are tasked with providing behaviorally-based operation support by getting into criminals’ minds and creating profiles around their behavioral patterns with the ultimate intent of identifying of helping investigators identify criminals and what motivates them. Hess referenced the many television shows based on the unit, such as “Criminal Minds,” though she joked that the FBI’s actual unit does not “solve all our crimes in an hour.” 

In 2012, an agency insider offered up an “innovative idea”—to have behavioral analysts observe and evaluate the online behavior of cyber criminals. The notion launched the creation of the agency’s Cyber Behavioral Analysis Center, or CBAC, which introduces the FBI’s conventional analysis techniques into the internet landscape. In this capacity, the cyber profilers integrate technical, behavioral and cultural insights to better understand the motivations and tactics behind cyber crimes. In late 2018, the team conducted a detailed analysis of the malware and associated files used in the WannaCry ransomware attacks. Through technical profiling and case link analysis, Hess said insiders were ultimately able to conclude that all three versions of the attacks were likely created by the same authors.

“Despite being focused on unique areas of cyber psychology, digital weapon selection analysis, and online influence assessments, that unit continues to use the foundational principles of behavioral analysis—the tenants that were created by the FBI behavioral science unit founders in the late 1970s,” Hess said. “Those traditional behavioral analysis methodologies, they’ve been expanded to the cyber sphere in both criminal and national security matters.” 

Under Hess’ branch, there’s also a small team of victims specialists, who she said don’t get much attention but do “critically important” work. The team focuses on those who are targeted in crimes and, historically, have helped them understand the rights and services available to them, or supported them in funeral arrangements or returning personal items belonging to the deceased. But in 2018, some members of the team began working to assist victims who are harassed or scammed online—a new role in the agency’s Internet Crime and Complaints Center. 

Since then, the center also launched a Recovery Asset Team, which works to address fraudulent wire transfers. The team recovered tens of millions of dollars in the last year. In one case, for example, a woman was attempting to purchase a new house online and was fooled by a spoof email online that appeared to be from her leasing agent, and transferred $56,000 online—inheritance money she had just received following her mother’s recent death. The FBI’s team was able to contact the bank, freeze the funds, and quickly return them to their rightful owner. 

“So, clearly I’m very proud of the work that our victim specialists do—the work we do with the victims and we have been doing with victims for over 110 years,” Hess said. “But now, looking at it from a technical perspective.”

Going forward, Hess said the bureau plans to further boost its tech-focused workforce. This year, the FBI established new positions for data scientists and analysts, as well as digital operations specialists. Ultimately, she said they are looking to hire people with strong technical skills that can augment the work of investigators. 

“That has been a huge push for us, especially this year,” Hess said.

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