Until quite recently if you had something to say your options were limited to publishing your own newsletter or standing on a soap box in the center of town. While there have long been opportunities to write op-ed pieces for the media or pen a letter to the editor, opportunities to share your personal views with a wide audience were few, and required effort.
Today, individuals can become their own media outlets through podcasts, blogs and YouTube Channels. None of these are new, but the audience for podcasts and video content continues to rise. Today some people even make their living from these alternative media outlets. The question is whether this is something those with security clearance should or even can embrace?
The quick answer is blogging or hosting a podcast or YouTube Channel shouldn’t be a problem.
“Countless reporters or bloggers receive security clearances,” said Mark S. Zaid, Washington DC attorney specializing in litigation and lobbying on matters relating to international transactions, torts and crimes, national security.
The longer answer is a bit more complex however.
“As an actual clearance holder, of course, there might be prepublication review obligations from the security standpoint as well as regulatory requirements to receive permission before any type of publication whatsoever,” Zaid told ClearanceJobs.
One major concern might involve what a blog, podcast or YouTube Channel contains. This wouldn’t be limited to exposing national secrets, either.
Blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels are a good way to show off expertise on a subject, but what you share should be considered. While most would know not to spill national or even trade secrets, it is still necessary to consider what you say or post.
“You have to make sure that you don’t run afoul of prepublication review,” warned Chuck McCullough III, partner and chair of the national security practice group at Tully Rinckey PLLC.
“If it is open source material and really has nothing to do with your job, and as long as you aren’t posting anything sensitive it should be OK,” McCullough told ClearanceJobs. “But the smart thing is to still check with your general consul office.”
Content can still be an issue even if it was said, written or posted before you applied for clearance.
“Any publications prior to holding a clearance could certainly create security concerns but it would pertain to what was written/said rather than the mere fact of appearing/blogging,” said Zaid. “For example, if a blog contained threats to the President or espoused Nazi views there could be security concerns that could preclude the granting of a clearance.”
In addition, anything that you wouldn’t say to a co-worker in the office wouldn’t be suitable in the context of a podcast or blog either.
“This could include discussions of sexual behaviors or use of drugs,” warned Ronald C. Sykstus, attorney at law at Bond, Botes, Sykstus, Tanner &Ezzell, P.C. “This falls into the realm of personal conduct, where you could be showing a lack of judgment.”
This follows the same lines as use of social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat, the latter being a service where content in theory “disappears.”
“You want to stay away from anything that could cast you in a bad light, like overtly political discussions; glorification of drinking, shenanigans and promiscuity or sexualized images of yourself or others,” Skystus told ClearanceJobs. “But it also includes ‘over sharing’ of personal information.”
While blogs, podcasts and YouTube content can be deleted, traces of it can remain. Content can be copied and once online it lives forever.
“We’ve had a saying in social media for some time, ‘Whatever happens in Vegas’ stays on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest,” said Lon S. Safko, social media consultant and past “Q” level security clearance holder.
“The whole initial purpose of a blog – weB-LOGor web-journal – was to have an outlet for your frustrations and opinions,” Safko told ClearanceJobs. “People post – start discussions – that are controversial and controversy will not get you a security clearance. Once something is on the Internet, it is accessible forever. It never goes away.”
In cases where content seems non-controversial, it could still cause problems in other ways. An example could be an IT professional discussing trends in the world of IT and cyber security – even if the information provided is open source and well known, criticizing a company or favoring another could come back to haunt you.
“The concern here is of objectivity,” said John Dvorak, chief information officer at Salient CRGT. “You could be in a position where you are working as a contractor or for the government and are charged with acquisitions. What happens when you’ve said something about a company you might now do business with? This could be an issue if you have to make decisions in that space as your objectivity might come in to question.”
The level of objectivity increases if someone you are making money via the blog, podcast or YouTube channel. A lot can depend what is the source of the revenue. Again, an IT blogger who is making money via official sponsorships from a vendor could be facing a conflict of interest.
“Taking money from a vendor is an issue again if you find yourself in the decision making process as a contractor or are in the government sector and might be writing the check,” Dvorak told ClearanceJobs.
“20 years ago the only way to make money on the side while being a contractor was to get another job,” added Dvorak. “Today there are these other ways but these can also get you in trouble. Most employers will require you to declare any forms of income and if you are starting to make money via a blog you’re going to have to explain it.”
The best option is to talk with your security officer and superiors to ensure that this doesn’t become a problem. The second recommendation is to make sure any topics you write or post about fall into the ‘hobby’ realm, and aren’t a reflection of the work the government is paying you for.
“Build notoriety around a personal passion or interest and stay away from anything that can be misconstrued and negatively impact your career,” recommends Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “Best practices for content creators who are interested in government jobs is to focus on a personal hobby or other subject matter that doesn’t have anything to do with politics or the objectives of their current job or the one they are hoping to get.
As with most issues around security clearance, open and clear communication from the beginning is always suggested.