UFO’s, Bigfoot, a second shooter on the grassy knoll.  America’s history is rich with urban myths and conspiracy theories.  In many, if not most, of these fantastical tales, the federal government plays a prominent role.  I think a healthy skepticism of government is a good thing within reason, irrespective of whether Uncle Sam is writing your paychecks or merely extracting taxes from them.  But those who work for the government are, in my experience, sometimes the wariest of governmental power.  They’ve seen up-close-and-personal the vast resources and long arm of our nation’s law enforcement and intelligence apparatuses in a way that most private citizens can only imagine.  They know what the government is capable of when the wheels start turning.

How Deep Does a Background Investigation Go?

And so, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of the people who call my office looking for legal help in preparing for a security clearance background investigation are not first-time, blissfully ignorant applicants, but rather current clearance holders up for periodic review.  They are commonly concerned about something the government might dig up and frequently wondering, “how deep does this investigation go?”.

Truth be told, not very deep.  Despite incredible advances in technology over the past few decades, the security clearance background investigation process remains decidedly low-tech and horribly outdated.  Policy-makers within the federal bureaucracy are working to change this, but the process is something akin to repositioning a cruise-liner: slow and incremental.

Invasive Investigations Need Consent

Until and unless radical transformations occur, security clearance background investigators won’t be reading your emails, surveilling your movements, bugging your telephones, or surreptitiously tracking your internet browsing history – all questions I’ve been asked by current clearance holders over the years.

Even with hypothetical policy changes allowing for more invasive means of investigation, efforts like these would legally require the security clearance applicant’s affirmative consent.  The only alternative would be if authorities obtained a search warrant pursuant to specific and articulatable evidence of criminal conduct obtained via otherwise authorized investigative methods.

Lack of Resources

Part of the reason for this is that the government simply lacks the resources to do a deep investigative dive on every security clearance applicant.  Security officials have to instead assess risk and allocate resources accordingly.  No doubt there are some particularly paranoid security officials out there advocating for the Orwellian state, but it isn’t happening – at least not any time soon.

Big Brother Isn’t Necessarily Watching

So, rest-assured that applying for a security clearance doesn’t mean Big Brother will be watching your every move.  But do remember to exercise reasonable prudence and common sense, lest those otherwise private activities you’d like to keep private unexpectedly spill out into the open.


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 https://www.berrylegal.com/.