GAO: Federal background checks can be risky business

The Office of Personnel Management should improve its oversight of federal background investigations to ensure the security of personal information, according to a new audit.

A Government Accountability Office report released Thursday found OPM's Federal Investigative Service, which conducts background checks for individuals seeking government employment and security clearances, has limited oversight of privacy regulations designed to protect identifying information collected in those processes. FIS is bound by the 1974 Privacy Act and the 2002 E-Government Act to limit the disclosure and use of personal information and to implement safeguards for protecting that data. It does not monitor investigator and agency compliance to privacy laws, however, the audit found.

According to GAO, the Federal Investigative Service collects large amounts of personal identifying information to conduct background investigations. While OPM has developed assessments to ensure data is used only for specified purposes, it has not updated guidance for officials responsible for implementing processes to address those risks. FIS also has limited oversight of investigators and customer agencies to ensure they are following privacy protection regulations, the report found.

"While FIS has policies and procedures to protect [personal identifying information] used by its field investigators, there is no process to assess the level of protection of PII provided by these investigators while investigative activity is under way," GAO stated. "Without an oversight mechanism that directly assesses investigators' adherence to OPM PII protection policies, the agency lacks assurance that PII is being properly protected."

One concern is the volume of background checks that must be completed quickly, said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based public interest group, adding investigators require rapid training and supervision to keep up with the workload. According to GAO, the Federal Investigative Service conducts 90 percent of all federal personnel investigations and in 2009 completed more than 2 million checks. OPM should evaluate the processes in place and ensure personal information cannot be accessed with data mining programs, Coney added.

Improved oversight and evaluation would ensure the more than 7,000 workers responsible for conducting background investigations are following agency policies, GAO concluded. In addition, the report recommended OPM develop procedures for monitoring customer agencies' compliance with privacy regulations.

In comments on the draft report, OPM agreed with GAO's recommendations, but noted it has implemented procedures to ensure investigators follow privacy policies. GAO, however, said despite recent efforts, compliance still is lagging.

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