They say if you’ve got it, flaunt it. That may be good advice for celebrities, swimsuit models, and twenty-somethings trying to score a date on Tinder. For the rest of us, particularly those with access to classified information, discretion is more often the name of the game.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an age of discretion. We live in an age where social media has replaced the personal diary; where words that one would never dare utter in person flow freely from behind the protection of a computer screen; and where the perceived anonymity of the internet lends itself to feelings of invincibility that sometimes result in extraordinary risk-taking.

Enter the nude selfie.

I’ve lost track of how many celebrities have fallen victim to computer hacking and the public release of private, compromising photographs. Suffice it to say, there have been enough to put the general public on notice that cameras and nudity present a dangerous combination akin to drinking and driving. Nonetheless, plenty of people not looking to make a career as a porn star still can’t wait to take it all off for their iPhone.

For the majority of people, the worst that happens is that the images fall into the wrong hands, resulting in an extortion attempt or the recent phenomenon of “revenge porn”. Make no mistake – those are horrible outcomes – but it gets a lot worse when a condition of your employment is maintaining the federal government’s trust. I know because I see the consequences play out from time to time defending clients in security clearance denial and revocation cases. While this issue remains somewhat novel, the frequency is increasing. And when it does occur, it raises questions about the individual’s judgment, reliability, and fitness for access to the nation’s secrets. I don’t judge my clients, but you’d better believe that the over-65 crowd often deciding these appeals thinks of nude selfies like their parents thought of “the devil’s music”, rock and roll.

The government generally finds out about the existence of nude selfies in one of two ways: during a full-scope (“lifestyle”) polygraph examination or through the security clearance holder/applicant’s affirmative response to a question commonly asked during background investigation interviews.  That question – “is there anything about you not generally known that could be used for blackmail?” – throws a lot of people for a loop. It is a subjective question; after all, what one individual finds sufficiently embarrassing to constitute a blackmail risk may be a non-issue for someone else. There are, however, a few things that are generally viewed by security officials as uniform bases for blackmail. Those include a secret love-child, an illicit affair, serious undiscovered criminal conduct, and – you guessed it – photographs or video of the individual nude or engaged in otherwise compromising activity.

Depending upon the circumstances, even issues of this magnitude can sometimes be mitigated. On the other hand, answering “no” to the blackmail question and then the government somehow finding out about your sexting habit is a guaranteed recipe for career-killing integrity questions.

So, if you’ve got it and you do want to flaunt it, don’t let me rain on your parade. Just remember that if you also hold (or aspire to hold) a security clearance you should be sure the only snapshots being taken are mental ones.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit