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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.