Federal background checks could soon factor in social media

After years of planning, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence approved the incorporation of public social media feeds in security clearance investigations -- a move that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shutterstock image: connecting individuals to one another through an access point.

The intelligence community has released a plan to include checks of public social media accounts as part of standard background investigations to qualify feds and contractors for access to classified information.

The policy was released to members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee via email at about 11 p.m. the night before a scheduled May 13 hearing on progress in adding social media checks to the vetting process.

"The data gathered via social media will enhance our ability to determine initial or continued eligibility for access to classified national security information and eligibility for sensitive positions," said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Members of Congress have sought the inclusion of social media as part of the vetting process since the Navy Yard shootings in 2013, perpetrated by a cleared contractor, and the leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

The Office of Personnel Management is planning a pilot project to see what kind of social media information is available on individuals seeking security clearances, and what kinds of companies and tools can be used to search for and analyze the information, according to acting Director Beth Cobert.

"This pilot is unique from other pilots in that it will assess the practical aspects of incorporating social media searches into the operational end-to-end process," Cobert said in written testimony. The test will examine the cost, quality, timeliness and exclusivity of the information.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said social media vetting will add $100 to $500 to the cost of a clearance investigation, a figure that was not disputed by witnesses.

The cost is not trivial. According to Cobert's testimony, the government conducts about 1 million investigations per year -- 600,000 national security investigations and 400,000 for suitability for federal employment. Social media probes, therefore, could add $100 million to $500 million to the cost of credentialing and clearing federal employees.

Federal CIO Tony Scott told the committee that the government wants to automate as much of that functionality as possible, especially considering the potential for misleading or extraneous information that comes from combing open social media platforms.

"I share my name with a professional baseball player, a professional musician and a movie director," Scott said. "A simple search would turn up a bunch of crazy stuff that wouldn't be relevant."

Under the policy, no clearance applicant will be asked for passwords or other information on his or her protected accounts. Additionally, the government will not demand online aliases or pseudonyms used to post information online, such as a Twitter handle that doesn't correspond to an applicant's name or an online identity used to post reviews or comments.

At the same time, Evanina said, the existence of online identities could be discovered in the course of investigations, and relevant information would be pursued.

However, he told lawmakers that reviewers will not intentionally collect information on those not subject to background investigations, and their privacy will be protected.

"Absent a national security concern or criminal reporting requirement, information pertaining to individuals other than the individual being investigated will not be investigated or pursued," Evanina said.