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No matter the resources, agency IGs are drowning in data

March 8, 2017 (Photo Credit: Carten Cordell/Staff)
Whether tasked with the resources of the Department of Defense or guarding the safety of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, agency investigators have a big problem: Data.

Speaking at the Nuix Government Thought Leadership Summit on March 7, investigators from DoD and the departments of Transportation and Energy talked about the challenges their offices face in parsing through an increasingly massive collection of data generated by the agencies to solve their cases.

Keith Craig, DoD’s section chief for computer forensic investigations, noted a 2014 investigation where his team had to sift through 31 terabytes of data to find evidence that an employee had brought agency materials home with him and stored it on personal computers.

“The interview started off with a laptop and a thumb drive,” he said. “Then suddenly [he] remembered more data and then turned over a little bit more. I think we went through five rounds of that.

“What we realized after the fact was that the individual was destroying evidence on a staged basis and then turning over material he thought was clean and was shocked when we found probably the most damning information on a two-gigabyte thumb drive.”

The nature of those investigations requires inspectors general and auditors to spend time sifting through increasing mountains of data and amassing more data storage for themselves to house the evidence.

Craig said his office had to ramp up its storage from 14 terabytes at one point to a present capacity of 2.5 petabytes to handle investigations — 178 times more than was once needed.

Another problem is even keeping track of the data, which the agency may not know it has or where it is, said Anthony Adkison, assistant special agent in charge at the Energy Department.

“There’s just a variety of problems, and every one of them has changed,” he said.

Adkison added that while inspectors general are able to recoup the costs of their offices and staff through identifying agency savings, the mere scope of the work they are tasked with leaves them looking for a needle in a stack of needles.

“I think the whole thing borders on travesty,” he said. “The IGs are so small compared to the agencies they are tasked with investigating. There’s not necessarily any, [if] at all, connection between the size of the department and the size of the inspector general.

“Our department is 100,000-ish people, and there are 62 investigators in the organization.”

The IGs are also unlikely to staff up anytime soon, as the hiring freeze has left a dearth of talent.

“Our challenge right now is the knowledge gap between the employee, the technology, the data sets that we have and how we use that data set to most effectively to either conduct our investigation or to be proactive to identify the fraud, waste or abuse while it’s occurring,” said Stephen Burke, special agent in charge of data analytics and computer crimes at the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General.

So while some IGs are navigating personnel issues and others storage capacity problems — and all are sifting through an avalanche of data — Craig said he would like to see a central clearinghouse to combine the best of investigative knowledge and resources.

“Yes, we have all of these great tools. We have these great resources available to us,” he said. “Even with all of that, my folks are overwhelmed with work We’re still resource-poor in terms of people, and we’ve had to reach across multiple agencies and our entire enterprise to find the technical talent to make everything work.

“One of these days, I would like to see a centralized forensics center which can take cases, assign resources and consolidate the training, the data storage and the tools."
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