FBI Director James Comey Speaks out on the Threat of Cybercrime

During a candid discussion with host Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes at FBI headquarters in Washington DC, James Comey speaks out about the threat of cybercrime confronted by American citizens and corporations. Comey declares that cybercrime perpetrated by nation states, criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations has reached epidemic proportions and is directly costing the US economy billions of dollars a year.

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The following is a transcript of the excerpt:

James Comey: Cybercrime is becoming everything in crime. Again, because people have connected their entire lives to the Internet, that’s where those who want to steal money or hurt kids or defraud go. So it’s an epidemic for reasons that make sense.

Scott Pelley: How many attacks are there on American computer systems and on people’s credit card numbers and the whole mass of it? What does a day look like if you’re concerned with crime in cyberspace?

James Comey: It would be too many to count. I mean, I think of it as kind of an evil layer cake. At the top you have nation state actors, who are trying to break into our systems. Terrorists, organized cyber syndicates, very sophisticated, harvesting people’s personal computers, down to hacktivists, down to criminals and pedophiles.

Scott Pelley: What countries are attacking the United States as we sit here in cyberspace?

James Comey: Well, I don’t want to give you a complete list. But I can tell you the top of the list is the Chinese. As we have demonstrated with the charges we brought earlier this year against five members of the People’s Liberation Army. They are extremely aggressive and widespread in their efforts to break into American systems to steal information that would benefit their industry.

Scott Pelley: What are they trying to get?

James Comey: Information that’s useful to them so they don’t have to invent. They can copy or steal so learn about how a company might approach negotiation with a Chinese company, all manner of things.

Scott Pelley: How many hits from China do we take in a day?

James Comey: Many, many, many. I mean, there are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.

Scott Pelley: The Chinese are that good?

James Comey: Actually, not that good. I liken them a bit to a drunk burglar. They’re kicking in the front door, knocking over the vase, while they’re walking out with your television set. They’re just prolific. Their strategy seems to be: We’ll just be everywhere all the time. And there’s no way they can stop us.

Scott Pelley: How much does that cost the U.S. economy every year?

James Comey: Impossible to count. Billions.

Scott Pelley: Sounds like cybercrime is a long way from Bonnie and Clyde for the FBI.

James Comey: Bonnie and Clyde could not do a thousand robberies in the same day, in all 50 states, from their pajamas, halfway around the world.

Scott Pelley: The FBI’s had legendary problems upgrading its computer systems. Are you now to a place where you’re satisfied that you’re meeting the cybersecurity threat?

James Comey: We’ve made great progress coordinating better as a government. When I last left government, my sense of us was kind of like four-year-old soccer. So like a clump of four year olds chasing the ball, we were chasing it in a pack. We’re about high school soccer now. We’re spread out. We pass well. But the bad guys are moving at World Cup speed. So we have to get better.

Scott Pelley: Do people understand, in your estimation, the dangers posed by cybercrime and cyber espionage?

James Comey: I don’t think so. I think there’s something about sitting in front of your own computer working on your own banking, your own health care, your own social life that makes it hard to understand the danger. I mean, the Internet is the most dangerous parking lot imaginable. But if you were crossing a mall parking lot late at night, your entire sense of danger would be heightened. You would stand straight. You’d walk quickly. You’d know where you were going. You would look for light. Folks are wandering around that proverbial parking lot of the Internet all day long, without giving it a thought to whose attachments they’re opening, what sites they’re visiting. And that makes it easy for the bad guys.

Scott Pelley: So tell folks at home what they need to know.

James Comey: When someone sends you an email, they are knocking on your door. And when you open the attachment, without looking through the peephole to see who it is, you just opened the door and let a stranger into your life, where everything you care about is.

Scott Pelley: And what might that attachment do?

James Comey: Well, take over the computer, lock the computer, and then demand a ransom payment before it would unlock. Steal images from your system of your children or your, you know, or steal your banking information, take your entire life.

Scott Pelley: We have talked about a lot of menacing things in this interview. Do you think Americans should sleep well?

James Comey: I think they should. I mean, the money they have invested in this government since 9/11 has been well spent. And we are better organized, better systems, better equipment, smarter deployment. We are better in every way that you’d want us to be since 9/11. We’re not perfect. My philosophy as a leader is we are never good enough. But we are in a much better place than we were 13 years ago.