January 26, 2001, 1:31 PM — THE FBI LAST week officially announced the formation of its InfraGard program, a cybercrime security initiative designed to improve cooperation between federal law enforcement officials and the private sector, after completing the process of setting up InfraGard "chapters" at its 56 field offices.
The National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), an FBI affiliate that's based at the agency's headquarters in Washington, started the InfraGard program five years ago as a pilot project in the Cleveland area. An FBI spokesman Monday said that the last local chapter, comprised of information security experts from companies and academic institutions, was put in place last month in New York.
According to FBI officials, InfraGard offers companies an intrusion-alert network based on encrypted e-mail messages plus a secure Web site for communicating with law enforcement agencies about suspicious network activity or attacks. The program "allows law enforcement and industry to work together and share information regularly, including information that could prevent potential intrusions into our national infrastructure," said Attorney General Janet Reno in a statement.
But the NIPC has been criticized in the past for what some have called a "fundamental inability to communicate" with the rest of the national security community. The problem, according to sources, has been that the FBI treats all potential cybercrimes as law enforcement investigations first and foremost -- a stance that effectively bars access to information by other government security agencies.
John Pescatore, a security analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, said the timing of the announcement may be a sign that the FBI is jockeying for budget influence in a future Bush administration. The InfraGard program "hasn't had much of an impact" on corporate users thus far, he added.
"It seems like the different chapters are very personality-driven," Pescatore said. "But the FBI hasn't really institutionalized [InfraGard] or funded it to be anything very meaningful. The general feeling ... is that it is all input to the FBI and no output from them."
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, called the InfraGard announcement "one of several rather belated efforts by the Clinton administration to create new security structures." For example, President Clinton last Friday also announced a plan to better coordinate federal counterintelligence efforts -- a move aimed partly at improving the response of agencies such as the FBI and the CIA to information security attacks against companies.