Scrutinizing social media accounts may become regular part of federal security checks
By ERIC YODER | The Washington Post | Published: May 12, 2016
WASHINGTON — Federal employees may want to be more prudent when posting to social media and more selective about selfies, as the government eyes their online activities to gauge their trustworthiness.
Two subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing Friday on whether scrutinizing their social media accounts should become a regular part of security investigations of federal employees and if so, under what conditions.
The hearing comes as the Obama administration is preparing to announce a policy that officials have hinted will open the door to more searches of social media during those background checks .
The administration last month announced plans to test how the government could use such searches in those investigations, which determine eligibility to get — and keep — the security clearances that are required for many federal jobs. Congress meanwhile is considering a bill to require that type of scrutiny during background checks of intelligence agency employees.
The issue of whether to snoop on social media postings of federal employees is surfacing near the one-year anniversary of disclosures that personal information on some 22 million people was stolen from two Office of Personnel Management databases. One involved personnel records on current and former federal employees and the other files of background investigations into federal employees and others who applied for security clearances or who sought access to certain government facilities.
Those breaches triggered an internal review of background investigation procedures and a decision to create a new semi-independent entity within the OPM to oversee those probes and to shift control of the information gathered to the Defense Department.
There is a range of potential approaches--with increasing privacy considerations at each step. Options include examining only information readily available through a standard online search; further requiring employees to disclose all their online identifications; further requiring them to disclose information such as social media "friends" whose names are otherwise hidden; and further requiring them to provide passwords to their sites.
"Useful information is already publicly available and can be accessed while respecting a reasonable expectation of privacy," committee spokeswoman M.J. Henshaw said in an email.
"Traditional evaluation standards currently in use for clearance investigations can easily be applied to social media and publicly available information," she added.
For example, a selfie taken in front of the Kremlin might be treated the same as a written or verbal disclosure of such a visit. In addition, individuals could be guaranteed similar rights to explain potential red flags.
The hearing follows one in February where Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, pressed officials from OPM and other agencies to add scrutiny of social media to background checks.
"We're going to grant them a security clearance to access the information of the United States of America, information that can't be shared with the public, and they won't share their information with you?" he asked. "It should be on your form — show us all your online identities. When you're doing a background investigation how can you not look at their Facebook page or their Twitter posts? Or any of the other ones?"
Officials made no commitment at the time, saying they were continuing to review issues including privacy concerns.
"In looking at social media, we want to make sure that we are looking at it in a way that is effective, that brings insight to the process, that reflects what is in that information and it's done in an appropriate and systematic way," OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert said then.
Officials have since said that a policy will be announced soon, although they have not specified timing or details. Cobert is scheduled to testify again Friday along with officials from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also involved in crafting the policy.
OPM recently moved toward launching a pilot program to incorporate into background investigations automated searches of information pertinent to an individual that is publicly accessible through social media sites, blogs, forums, picture and video sharing sites, and others.
OPM also said it is looking for capability to search "parts of the World Wide Web whose contents are not indexed by standard search engines."
It made that announcement in an April "request for information" — a research step before crafting a contract to put up for bidding. It has not specified a target date for starting such a test or its potential size.
The government already has conducted several tests of searching social media and other online activity of those with security clearances.
In one involving nearly 3,400 Army personnel, information "relevant" to eligibility for a clearance was found on a fifth, although "none of the issues identified were disqualifying by themselves," said a report that cited those findings as supporting wider use. The report was an independent review commissioned by the Pentagon on the 2013 shootings at the Washington Navy Yard that made recommendations on clearance reviews and other security practices.
Separately, a review of some 350 intelligence community employees found "security-relevant" information on two-thirds, but "information judged to be adverse" for just 12 percent. "The nature of this information, however, may be of potential value, either as a tool to confirm information obtained using other strategies or to provide investigative leads," said an Office of the Director of National Intelligence report on that test.
Meanwhile, a House-passed bill that is pending in the Senate would require intelligence agencies to include social media monitoring as part of a beefed-up security clearance policy for employees of those agencies.
The bill would require that agencies look for "information that may suggest ill intent, vulnerability to blackmail, compulsive behavior, allegiance to another country, change in ideology, or that the covered individual lacks good judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness."
Background investigations are just one area where the government has been examining how federal workplace policies — some of which date back many decades — apply in the online environment.
Late in 2015 the Office of Government Ethics issued guidance on the implications for policies called the Standards of Conduct that govern seeking outside employment, use of an employee's title, charitable fundraising, disclosing nonpublic information, and more.
Around the same time, the Office of Special Counsel released updated guidance on how the Hatch Act, a law that restricts partisan political activities of federal employees, applies in the social media context.