Your Social Media Habits Could Soon Affect Your Security Clearance

No one’s going to ask for your login credentials, but public information will be fair game.

A memo released by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper paves the way for agencies to conduct social media checks in the course of doing security clearance background investigations.

Any information searched must be related to the 13 adjudicative criteria, and must be publicly available. A background investigator will not be asking for your login credentials, but you should expect your name to be searched on popular search engines and social media sites once the policy is implemented.

“The intent of the policy was to give top cover to agencies who want to start using social media,” said Charles Sowell, senior vice president of national security and cyber solutions with Salient CRGT. He emphasized that the policy does not mean applicants should expect social media checks to become a universal part of the background investigation process. He also noted that use of social media would be implemented on an agency-by-agency basis.

Sowell said that unlike some employers, the government was not going to be asking security clearance applicants for their user names and passwords—an important distinction for privacy advocates. “We’re not going to be trying to break into password protected social media settings, and we’re not going to try to circumvent privacy settings,” said Sowell.

The omnibus appropriations bill passed in December 2015 prescribed new social media dictates for the background investigation process. Until now, DNI has yet to provide implementation guidance. Congress has been highly critical of the government’s failure to allow background investigators to search publicly available information about candidates. The new directive changes that.

“Social media has become an integral—and very public—part of the fabric of most Americans’ daily lives,” said Bill Evanina, Director of ODNI’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “We cannot afford to ignore this important open source in our effort to safeguard our secrets—and our nation’s security.

The release noted background investigators will not be required to search social media sites as a part of the investigation process, but will be allowed to if their agency moves forward with implementation guidance. Social media checks may be used to validate concerns, or may also mitigate potential issues.

What Applicants Need to Know

Social media checks should not change the status quo for security-cleared professionals or applicants. It is still critical to follow safe social networking, to protect your private information and not post things you wouldn’t want your boss or a recruiter to see. But, for applicants with borderline issues, social media checks may provide the tipping point that leads to a clearance denial. A single DUI alone would likely not flag your alcohol consumption as a potential security risk. But that, along with a variety of photos on social media sites that shows you inebriated or in compromising situations, may cause your clearance to be denied or revoked. (Excessive alcohol consumption is an adjudicative criteria currently considered by investigators.)

Social media also may highlight false claims during a background investigation. If you claim, for example, that you have never traveled abroad but photos surface of a trip you’ve taken, that’s a red flag for investigators. Foreign influence is another key adjudicative criteria. Have you denied a relationship with your Chinese cousin? That claim may be questioned if photos of you both together appear online.

“It’s important to think about where we think the most productive information—where is social media going to be most helpful,” said Sowell. “There aren’t any databases out there for mental health issues or foreign preference or personal conduct issues, the way there are for criminal activity. Social media will be very helpful as a source of information for some adjudicative guidelines, and very low on others, but it’s an incredibly important addition to the toolbox.”

The directive states that publicly available information includes information available by subscription or purchase.

While this may sound invasive, this is what security clearance holders or applicants should already expect when they sign their SF-86. The Clapper memo dictates that this information will not be obtained on applicants until they have signed the authorization for the release of information in their SF-86.

“No individual background investigator is going to be able to on their own start using social media in their background investigations,” Sowell assured. “There will be policies and procedures created in each agency, on what you do when you encounter information. I think we’re a little while away from it making its way into the background investigations. At the very least a few months, but at the most, years for some agencies that want to take a wait and see approach.”

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of and a former Defense Department employee.