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Where the FBI’s top cybercrime agents go after quitting the force
Life beyond government can be lucrative.
After headline-grabbing investigations, arrests, and prosecutions on some of America’s highest-profile cybercriminals, five of U.S. law enforcement’s most prized cybercrime aces have all left government service for greener pastures—a titan consulting firm called Berkeley Research Group (BRG).
BRG’s newly hired gang of five includes former federal prosecutor Thomas Brown, as well as former FBI agents Christopher Tarbell, Thomas Kiernan, and Ilhwan Yum—names that punctuated many of the biggest cybercrime stories of the last decade.
That group’s 2013 bust of Silk Road, the first major Dark Net market where anyone could purchase drugs and other illicit goods and services, is famous enough. That story will be transformed into a 21st Century Fox movie soon—a fact BRG happily boasted about in its February press release announcing new hires.
Their résumés, however, go well beyond Silk Road.
The team investigated and prosecuted the leadership of groups like Anonymous and LulzSec. Several of them worked directly with Hector Monsegur, better known as Sabu, an infamous hacktivist who turned federal informant thanks to the work of Tarbell and Yum. (Disclosure: Monsegur wrote a review of CSI: Cyber for the Daily Dot.)
In 2013, alongside the Silk Road arrests, members of the group investigated a Russian hack of NASDAQ first spotted three years earlier. The team played major roles in the $6 billion money-laundering case against Liberty Reserve’s digital currency; investigations into the hacks of Citibank, PNC Bank, and the Rove Digital botnet; and the prosecution of Samarth Agrawal for stealing crucial code for high-frequency trading from the multinational, multibillion dollar bank Société Générale.
Then we come to the redacted portions of their résumés.
This gang of cybersecurity mercenaries—experts for hire with deep global connections across government and the private sector—have extensive experience with national security matters and intelligence agencies that make them invaluable to organizations like BRG. The specifics are kept secret, but the fact of their involvement with high-level operators is put on display in company profiles for BRG’s customers.
“Clients value our unique insight and proven track record, so BRG’s depth of talent and breadth of knowledge are exciting for us—they give us the opportunity to create synergies across various practice groups and capabilities,” Brown, the former federal prosecutor now employed by BRG, said when he joined the company earlier this year. “Our strength lies in our experience—not only in critical cybersecurity issues and crises, but in working together—and we’re confident this will lead to top-notch results for our clients.”
All of this experience and expertise in cyber makes them valuable to federal law enforcement—agencies that often cannot keep up with the salary perks that private industry offers.
“Private industry provides a lot of opportunity,” NYPD intelligence chief Thomas Galati told Congress earlier this year. “So I think the best people out there are working for private companies, and not for the government.”
The brightest spotlight has perhaps shone on Chris Tarbell, who was repeatedly called the Eliot Ness of cyberspace by eager reporters. Ness, who became famous as a top American cop during the prohibition era, left law enforcement to eventually become chairman of Diebold Corporation.
After spearheading cases against LulzSec and Silk Road, Tarbell left the FBI so quickly that he didn’t even appear at the trial of convicted Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht, despite being the leader of the team that arrested him.
It wasn’t just the private sector that called; Hollywood was ringing Tarbell’s phone off the hook.
A source with close knowledge of the matter told the Daily Dot that Tarbell—along with others involved in the Silk Road case, including convicted users of the site like Curtis Green—made high-paying deals with 21st Century Fox to be nearly exclusive sources for the studio’s feature articles, a prominent book, and a highly anticipated screenplay.
Tarbell is now a director of cybersecurity and investigations at BRG.
Big business at BRG
BRG, which brings in tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year, has a broad mandate that touches the top of the world’s biggest industries.
Wealthy clients from around the globe pay BRG to bring experienced minds across industry and technology to solve whatever problems stand in the way. The firm works with “most industries,” managing director Kevin Hamilton explained in a company blog post, as long as you can pay the price—think banking, governments, and health care. About 750 consultants operate in 26 BRG offices worldwide.
The company did not respond to our request for comment.
When major litigation is fought, expert witnesses are the mercenary weapons that can win the war. BRG is part of an increasingly rich industry of consultants building arsenals of potential testimony.
Clients include Bank of America, U.S. Steel, and General Electric in cases that include an ongoing lawsuit filed by the town of Halfmoon, New York, against G.E. for contaminating the Hudson River, America’s biggest hazardous-waste Superfund site. A BRG expert, Neil Shifrin, will testify on G.E.’s behalf.
BRG was founded by David Teece, a New Zealander who made his millions in America as an economist, academic, consultant, and expert witness who charges corporate clients upwards of $850 for an hour of his time. His most famous professional moment came in 2000’s battle between Napster and the record industry. When the record labels won, the judge cited Teece’s testimony about intellectual property throughout her judgement.
When Philip Morris, the multibillion-dollar tobacco giant, was sued for lying about the dangers of smoking, Teece was hired to help defend them. Philip Morris has spent decades and millions of dollars denying the negative health effects of cigarettes, the single greatest global cause of preventable death.
But Teece, testifying as an expert economist, successfully argued from the stand that Philip Morris couldn’t prevent smokers from learning the truth about cigarettes. “It’s just not feasible for Philip Morris to regulate the information market,” he said, adding that a deluge of other information from the likes of doctors and regulators act as a counter-weight. The narrative was a hit with jurors, who sided with the cigarette behemoth.
BRG is just one of several private sector giants luring high-profile law enforcement agents with deep pockets. For example, Leo Taddeo, who was head of the FBI’s cyber and special operations division in New York, moved to security software company Cryptzone in 2015.
If all of this talk has made you start wondering about how to get your own raise, worry not. Berkeley Research Group is still hiring.
If you miss the interview there, the private cybersecurity industry is expected to grow to over $170 billion by 2020. Surely there will be a few bucks left over for the rest of us.
Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.