Home News Stories 2010 January Idle FBI Computers Helping to Break Cases

FBI Computers Crunch Numbers in Their Sleep

computer monitors in dark room

The FBI’s Grid Computing Initiative uses the processing resources of sleeping FBI computers
in our offices around the country to sift through huge amounts of data for leads in cases.

On the Grid
Computers Crunch Numbers in Their Sleep


A space management specialist in one of our field offices on the East Coast set off on vacation last February. Before leaving, she made sure to leave her networked computer turned on.

A month earlier, computer scientists at the FBI’s Operational Technology Division (OTD) powered up a new program that enlisted every resting Bureau computer to help run calculations tied to criminal and terrorism investigations. By the time she returned from vacation her machine had processed a key bit of data that provided a big break in a case.

“We couldn’t have planned that better,” said Special Agent Jason Jarnagin, a unit chief in the Digital Evidence Section of OTD. “She was on vacation and her computer was crunching calculations.”

computer code
Distributing the work across our internal network allows us to harness the power of thousands of individual computer processors.

The specific case is still classified because it’s ongoing. But the technology, called grid computing, is increasingly common. Large universities and high-tech companies have employed this type of distributed computing for years. The idea is to harness the processing power of many individual computer work stations (the grid) rather than buying, building, and maintaining a single supercomputer. When a computer isn’t being used by a person, it’s silently running mathematical calculations on behalf of a central server to solve a problem.

In the FBI’s case, the grid is made up of thousands of desktop workstations at Headquarters and in field offices and resident agencies across the country. The computers are classified “secret” and are separate from the unclassified computers assigned to Bureau staff. Computers in the grid might be called upon to solve large computational problems or sort through massive indexes of data that might otherwise take years—or even decades—to sift and process.

“A lot of FBI elements can certainly make use of it, cases in which intense computational resources may be necessary,” Jarnagin said.

The idea behind the Grid Computing Initiative, as we call it, was hatched in 2004 when the Bureau was in the midst of overhauling technology to better serve investigators and analysts. Jarnagin said the mathematicians and computer scientists in his unit thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use FBI computers in a distributed fashion?”

Because the secret-classified computers are central to our casework, it took time to iron out processes and ensure the integrity of the FBI’s network. As new, more powerful computers came online, the grid’s computational abilities grew exponentially—a dual-core processor can manage twice the work of a single-core machine, and so on. Economically it made sense too—the amount of energy that would be required just to cool a supercomputer with the grid’s capabilities could power a small city, Jarnagin said.

The most well-known grid computing efforts enlist the public’s computer horsepower. In 1999, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley launched a program that enlisted the public to help find extraterrestrial life. The program, downloaded onto more than five million home computers, analyzes radio signals from space when the computers are not in use. Similar programs are seeking cures for diseases or solutions to mathematical dilemmas.

OTD Assistant Director Marcus Thomas calls the FBI’s effort, which is not open to the public, “the largest supercomputer dedicated solely to law enforcement.”

There have been breaks in other cases since the first one last February. And as more, stronger computers replace earlier models, the grid’s capacity only grows.

“Sixteen hours out of a day, on average, nobody’s at a computer,” Jarnagin said. “There’s so much processing power, it would be a waste for us not to use it, especially when it can help protect the American people.”

- Operational Technologies Division