James Comey, the director of the FBI, knows this: without pot-smoking nerds, his agency will be outpaced by pot-smoking nerds.
On August 30, Comey attempted to revitalize the encryption debate, and naturally his speech at the Symantec Government Symposium in Washington, D.C., touched on recruiting talented engineers who occasionally might smoke weed. The 45-minute address outlined the cybersecurity strategy and identified areas that need improvement. The logical “future of terrorism” is cyberwarfare: “As we make it harder and harder for [terrorists] to get physically into this country to kill people and to do damage,” Comey said, “surely they are going to turn to try to come in as a photon and do damage through the Internet.”
Comey acknowledged that the FBI is falling behind in cybersecurity because it’s failing to attract talented hackers: “We’re focusing on trying to steal people you’re trying to hire,” he told the audience of security researchers. (Symantec, among other achievements, blew open “Stuxnet” — one of the United States’s own out-of-control cyberweapons.)
There are two reasons skilled hackers don’t want to come serve their government: Money and stigma. “We do not have the dough. We cannot compete on dough,” Comey explained. However, he expressed hope that the FBI’s mission-driven work would inspire hackers to set aside financial concerns. “We can compete on mission,” he claimed. “The more we show people the nature of our mission and just how fun it is, how rewarding it is… that attracts a lot of talent.”
As for stigma, Comey summed it up well: “‘Dad, the problem is you’re the man,’” his daughter recently told him. “I thought that was a compliment,” Comey explained, “so I said, ‘Thank you, I really appreciate that.’ She said, ‘Dad, I don’t mean that in a good way.”
Comey wants to change that stigma. To do so, he’s loosening his stance on stoners, and he’s looking to Silicon Valley. He understands that startup culture is all the rage. Young people, in Comey’s mind, are simple: They don’t care about posh retirement plans, they just want a few small luxuries. He thinks that the key to winning over hackers is making the FBI cool.
“We’re working very hard inside the FBI to be a whole lot cooler than you may think we are,” he said. “We are not to bean bags and granola and a lot of white boards yet. But we’re working very hard at marching in that direction.”
Part of startup culture, as evidenced by Erlich, the best character on Silicon Valley, is marijuana. Startups may not allow their employees to get high on the job, but they’ll have beer, snacks, and table tennis. While other government agencies are cold on marijuana, Comey may be warming to it.
“We will find people of great integrity, who have technical talent, and can’t squeeze out more than two or three push-ups,” he said. “We may find people of great technical talent who want to smoke weed on the way to the interview.”
His view run counter to FBI culture, but Comey thinks that bucking tradition may be what the Bureau needs to move forward in the cybersecurity race.
Hackers, the world’s most talented computer engineers, have always been anti-establishment. The best hackers are tattooed, mohawk-sporting potheads, as John McAfee told Inverse. They want no part of the government; often, in fact, they want to bring the government down a notch.
So while Comey would like it if everyone would just give up on caring about encryption, he’s also courting those who hold it in the highest regard (and who might also smoke pot from time to time.)
“Tech companies last year wrote a letter to the president that I found, honestly, depressing, a little disheartening,” Comey said. “There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.”
Just don’t tell that to the hackers.
Watch Comey’s full speech (skip to 17:40 for the ganja comments):