If you’ve ever bought a house, you know the importance of your credit score – that simple score can make the difference in what kind of loan you’ll qualify for and how much house you can buy. For security clearance holders, your ‘integrity score’ may become equally important when it comes to your ability to stay on the job.
Jim Onusko, transition director for the National Background Investigations Bureau speculated that a FICO-like score for integrity could be the future of continuous monitoring. Which means that everything you so or post online could soon be contributing to a government assessment of your ability to handle classified information.
Now Hiring: Data Analysts
One thing is clear – the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will need to hire some serious data analysts to take on the complicated job of sifting through data and finding the information required. Some of that work will need to be performed by contractors, Onusko noted. The government is hoping it will uncover the kind of data it typically finds through polygraph investigations – which are currently only required for a segment of the cleared population.
A successful security clearance polygraph generally depends less upon the results and more upon the human inclination to pony up information that may have been left out of the SF-86. Officials with NBIB hope they can find that same kind of incriminating data before the interview, through a careful check of publicly available records, including social media.
Security clearance consultant William Henderson said the concept behind this kind of data analysis is nothing new – it involves larger amounts of digital data with less information from investigation sources, but still requires a computer program to provide some kind of risk value for applicants.
“There will be lots of people who will have a high risk scores, but who will eventually be eligible for security clearance after they have gone through a couple of extra steps in the process,” said Henderson. “I can only guess that when the system is fully up and run, the computer will probably identify more than 50% of applicants as having high risk scores. After a few years of continuously redefining the computer business rules, the percentage may shrink somewhat. When they first used e-Adjudication on Secret clearance investigations, only 25% to 30% of those cases got cleared by the computer.”
The one problem with the notion of using an integrity index to score your likelihood to pass along Uncle Sam’s secrets? It’s fraught with objectivity issues.
“While I can certainly appreciate goals like cost-savings and efficiency, I don’t think that a FICO score-like application is the way to achieve either,” said Sean Bigley, a security clearance attorney. “The reality is that FICO scores are based on quantifiable numbers – missed payments, debt to credit ratio, etc. – available for nearly every adult in our society. These are zero-sum calculations: either you have good credit or you don’t.”
Onusko stated that actuaries would need to reverse engineer a model based on individuals who are already known to have passed along classified information, including Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning – what online hints did they leave that could have predicted their future actions?
The White House announced the creation of the NBIB in January. Since then, Congress has asked for more specifics and speculated that the administration’s answer to security clearance reform is both too complicated and unclear.
“Whatever the use of this system, I have serious concerns as a defense attorney about fundamental fairness,” said Bigley. “A numerical score would seem to remove all context from the equation, making it very difficult for an applicant to challenge adverse decisions and creating a process ripe for abuse. Security clearance holders are people, not numbers.”
Security Clearance Costs and Time
At the heart of the issue is the need to improve upon the current security clearance process. Significant efforts have already been made to reduce the size of the population with access to classified information. Other reform efforts have focused on improving access to local police records. Continuous monitoring as a means to replace the current process of five and ten year background investigations is already being tested across government agencies, with some success.
The omnibus appropriations bill passed in December of 2015 prescribed new social media dictates for the background investigations process. But guidance on how to implement those checks has yet to be passed down.
“As we’re doing a background investigation, how could you not go look at their Facebook page, or their Twitter posts, or their Instagram, or Snapchat, or any of the other ones?” Pressed Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) during a recent congressional hearing. “…Go hire a bunch of teenagers and they’d do it better than we’re doing it. … ISIS has figured it out — they know how to do it. But we don’t seem to do it.”
Security Clearance Integrity Indicators?
Just as the lack of guidance on how background investigators can begin implementing social media checks is an issue, the lack of clarity on what exactly constitutes a lack of integrity is likely to be an issue. Clearance holders have already been cautioned to avoid inflammatory political speech online. And in a security clearance background investigation process that is purposefully subject to human judgment (which can vary from individual to individual), it goes without saying that one man’s integrity violation is another man’s free speech.
“I think it is a major logic leap to assume that one’s internet activity is predictive of national security risk,” said Bigley. “The only relevancy I potentially see is in assessing narcissism (“you took how many selfies?”), which I believe was a psychological character trait shared by both Snowden and Manning.”
So, put down that smartphone, security clearance holder. Uncle Sam may be coming for your Snapchats. But don’t worry, you have time. Integrity scoring is likely years – and several proposals – down the pipeline.