With the recent establishment of the National Background Investigations Bureau within the Office of Personnel Management, there has been a good deal of discussion on social network monitoring into the background investigation process.  I recently had the pleasure of speaking with ClearanceJobs on their podcast, “OPM’s New Background Investigation Agency and Social Media Monitoring of Clearance Holders, and we discussed this topic at length.

Why social networks?

There is no denying that relationships–close and continuing relationships–are being formed every day via social networks.  The mainstream sites, such as Match-dot-com, eharmony, Christian-Mingle, and the more salacious sites like Ashley Madison and Tinder, are designed specifically to facilitate connecting individuals for that purpose.

From the counterintelligence perspective, every single hostile intelligence service has figured this out, without expending a great deal of gray matter. Thus, the harvesting of data from the various social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn will provide a dossier on the individual. Combined with the information from the SF-86 — data which was comprised during the OPM breaches — and the odds of successfully creating a whole-person picture increase.

Will NBIB require social network monitoring?

In a January 2016 Washington Times piece, Samuel Schumach, an OPM spokesman, said social media required a look. However, the exact methodology to address privacy and accuracy of content had yet to be worked out.  Schumach said, “OPM is developing a social media pilot to complement other such pilots at DoD and other agencies so that searches of social media and other publicly available electronic information are responsibly integrated into the investigative process while respecting privacy and civil liberties.”

Schumach’s wording is telling, as it indicates the social network monitoring will be passive.  In other words, if you are posting information in a public manner within a social network, available to anyone who is a member of that public network, you should have the expectation that this information would be included in the OPM/NBIB social network monitoring sweep.

This is much different than the more intrusive “financial disclosure”, which are filed every year, where assets (real estate, trusts, accounts, etc.) are identified and all necessary information for the investigator are availed by the individual themselves, accompanied by a release to allow further micro-inspection.

Will passive NBIB social network monitoring be enough?

In my opinion, the passive manner of inspection will serve to check the box that the NBIB is looking at social networks. It will not provide the level of detail required beyond serving perhaps as a first glance.  To perform the counterintelligence function required, the NBIB will have to work their way through the legal and privacy quagmire of requiring individuals to identify those social networks in which they are participants, and either have the individual produce their content or provide the NBIB with the necessary release (to allow NBIB to obtain direct from the social network provider) or credentials to allow independent inspection of the individual’s account.

NBIB should be able to obtain the backing of DOJ and DOD’s need to address a very real counterintelligence threat as justification.  Any review or inspection of an individual’s private content within the various social networks must, in my opinion, be within the context of granting or continuing an individual’s security clearance.  A security clearance is not a right.  It is granted to individuals who are found suitable to protect the confidential information of the United States. Access to your social networks should be a part of the adjudication process to determine suitability.

How do you think NBIB should handle the review of social network content as part of the background investigatory process?

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).