The burn bag is about as common a fixture in classified work spaces as the trash can; find the latter, and you’ll usually also find the former.  As a result of the burn bag’s ubiquitous presence and the training instilled in clearance-holders, its rare to encounter situations where a cleared worker has inappropriately discarded classified or otherwise sensitive information in a trash can.  If anything, more goes into burn bags than should – including personal documents like lunch receipts (lest your spouse, er Uncle Sam, learn that you had a cheeseburger and fries three times this week).

Workplace Vigilance Needs to Translate to the Home

If only all clearance-holders exercised the same vigilance about sensitive information falling into the wrong hands at home.  With identity theft continuing to grow in frequency year-after-year, and financial issues remaining the number one reason for security clearance denials and revocations, clearance holders could decrease their likelihood of victimization – and the career repercussions that sometimes flow from it – in just a few simple steps.  

Step 1: Invest in a Shredder

The first, and perhaps most important, is investing in a good shredder – the cross-cut or “confetti” variety is best – and using it for financial documents, health records, cancelled checks and anything else that could potentially provide information necessary for someone to assume your identity.  If you’re really hardcore, you can instead burn the documents in a wood-burning fireplace subject to local laws; but a shredder is generally safer, more environmentally friendly, and usable year-round.  I’m partial to the higher capacity models that accept a thick stack of papers.  They save time and a good one can be had for around a hundred bucks.  

Step 2: Decrease Mail Theft Risk

The second step I recommend is, to the maximum extent possible, decreasing the amount of sensitive paperwork that arrives at your home in the first place by setting bills and financial statements to electronic delivery.  Mail theft is a real problem in many areas, including those experiencing a high volume of illegal drug use.  Methamphetamine users in particular have been known to sell stolen mail to identity thieves as a means of financing their addiction.  I encountered this many years ago working as a police officer in the form of mailbox “fishers” (people who would put a weight and a wad of duct tape on the end of a string and try to “fish out” mail from a drop box).  What’s currently in your mailbox that you’d like to keep private?

Step 3: Increase Your Personal Cybersecurity

Finally, moving sensitive documents out of your postal mailbox and into your email inbox requires a few common-sense security measures of its own.  Make sure your email password is a difficult combination of numbers, letters, and symbols; that you don’t use the same password for all online accounts; that you don’t write down your password where others can access it; that you password protect your home wi-fi; and, ideally, that you invest the nominal fee for a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) to obscure your connection to the internet from more sophisticated cyber criminals.

Easier to Avoid Identity Theft Headache than deal with the aftermath

True, a legitimate identity theft case is usually a complete defense against a security clearance denial or revocation case predicated on the clearance-holder’s purported financial irresponsibility. But establishing that defense requires an enormous investment of time, stress, attorney fees, and other headaches which may be avoidable through the exercise of reasonable prudence. The same kind of reasonable prudence that comes as second-nature in the cleared workspace.


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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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at