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What’s Your ‘Insider Threat Score?’ It Could Determine If You Keep Your Clearance

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Your eligibility to perform secret government work could one day be decided by a number that looks like a credit score, and factors in your social media activities.

According to the head of the new U.S. security clearance agency, the idea is to regularly vet individuals with access to classified information on their likelihood to go rogue, as one would be rated on their likelihood to default on a loan.

The envisioned "Fair Isaac-like score” (commonly known as a FICO score) for trustworthiness "is the future" of security clearance screening, said Jim Onusko, transition director for the new National Background Investigation Bureau.

The number also would reflect a shift away from checking up on intelligence and military staff every half-decade, as is current practice, to "continuous evaluation" through periodic searches of, for example, court records, mortgage transactions, and -- if authorized -- social media posts.

Onusko and other federal personnel security officials spoke Thursday at an Intelligence and National Security Alliance symposium in Chantilly, Virginia.

"This truly becomes a capacity issue," he said. "We've got to develop the electronic means" to collect indicators of an employee's reliability.

The calculations would work something like this, according to Onusko: "reverse engineer" the online activities of, say, ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden to understand the behavioral components of previous leakers. Then, have actuaries build a predictive model off those components. Run each employee's data through the formula to generate a FICO-like score for integrity.

An automated scoring system would "reduce the shoe leather" burned by background investigators, Onusko told Nextgov.

Boiling down personal narratives into metrics will demand a lot of data analysis, some of which will be delegated to contractors, he said. Background investigation work will shift from probing individuals to dissecting computer results and then validating those findings with interviews or other records.

"That will lead to quicker investigations, higher-quality and hopefully more actionable" insights for employers, Onusko said.

Today, the bulk of negative data about an employee surfaces during a polygraph test administered, typically, every five years, said Daniel Payne, director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Service. At the National Security Agency, 80 percent of valuable information on personnel comes from the polygraph, said Kemp Ensor, NSA director of security. Only employees requiring access to classified data undergo polygraph examinations. 

NSA, however, performed a successful social media test that tracked 175 spy agency employees through their online networks. About 45 percent of the searches returned information that aligned with criteria NSA currently uses to judge candidates -- "some of which we didn’t know before," Ensor said.

In January, the Obama administration first announced plans to overhaul inspections of national security personnel, establishing the National Background Investigations Bureau and deputizing the Defense Department to store and secure sensitive files.

The decision to stand up a new security clearance agency came after the Office of Personnel Management, along with background check providers USIS and KeyPoint, fell victim to hacks that affected more than 21.5 million individuals’ records.

Earlier incidents also pointed to weaknesses in evaluations of people trusted with national secrets. Critics raised questions about the quality of investigations by contractors and OPM, pointing to potential missed red flags in the backgrounds of Snowden, Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and other so-called insider threats.

Onusko noted that, under the new organizational structure, the Defense Information Systems Agency will handle information security, not vendors. That said, “contractors are still a core part of the investigative workforce," he told Nextgov.

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