Can What You Post on Social Media Impact Your Security Clearance?

Social media is a great way to stay connected. Before social media, when the world was so big, we relied on letters and phone calls. These were time consuming endeavors to keep each other informed. If I went on a trip to Europe, I might be back stateside before friends and family ever receive my postcards. Now that we have social media, the world has shrunken significantly and it only takes moments to share information. And, we do that willingly.

It’s also great to have family reunions or go out with friends and take pictures of events and the good times. We all want our friends to know how well we are doing and maybe we want to make some co-workers jealous while on vacation. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter make it possible to post your fun immediately.

Social media is a great invention and used for good, can be a rather fun way to keep up with others and allow them to keep up with you. However, such opportunities also provide epic fail situations where the poster gets in trouble at home and at work.

You may have read where school students have been suspended, military personnel have been punished and employees fired for events captured on social media. Some irresponsible postings have had reputation ruining consequences based upon perception as in the case of DeSean Jackson. He is the football player who missed practice while posting vacation photos. Even though he had probably preplanned the event and received permission, football fans everywhere decried his bold and audacious move to vacation rather than practice with his team.

The next time you post something negative about your work environment, the many photos depicting you with a drink in your hand, sneak a trip to the Bahamas, or update your relationship status for the 5th time in a week, think about this question; What happens when the security clearance investigation scope is approved to do a deep dive into social media?

Currently, this is an issue being pursued by the Department of Defense. The possibility of adding social media to the investigation docket may be coming. Per a study into the Navy Shipyard shooting [1], one DoD agency piloted a study and determined that at least 20 percent of the 3300 individuals subject to the pilot have been identified as having information relevant to adjudication.

Remembering the 13 adjudication criteria, there are several ways we can get into trouble through our real situations or the wrong perceptions provided by our postings. If investigators (or even co-workers) discover information relative to adjudication, you may find your clearance delayed while explaining behavior that could be perceived as reportable or derogatory information.

As we go forward with the topic of security clearances and social media, let’s leave the more direct investigation process behind for a moment and discuss the continuous evaluation, the Defense Security Services annual review, or other less direct, but just as impacting ways social media can effect a cleared employee’s security clearance.

The continuous evaluation process is in place to ensure a cleared employee remains eligible for their clearance. Just think about how this system has been challenged as ineffective. Both military, government and contractor employees with security clearances have committed atrocious acts. People who have been vetted with a security clearance have committed espionage, mass murder and terror.

The continuous evaluation process should identify and report problems that can lead to dangerous behavior. However, these interactions usually only occur at the office where everyone is already so busy. In the continuous evaluation process, the behavior once demonstrated as trustworthy should continue as cleared employees perform on classified work.

Employees are relied upon to observe other cleared employees and report any information that might be reportable or suspicious. These are again related to the 13 security clearance adjudication criteria that reflect a person’s trustworthiness. Most of this information is currently observed as employees serve at work. Does anyone show up under the influence? Is anyone suddenly displaying unexplained wealth? Is anyone staying late and using the copier a little more than normal? Are threats made or communicated? The chances of discover are slim.

With social media the playing field is suddenly extended. Now we get a glimpse of a co-workers after work activities. We might see posts from church, conferences or at play. We also might see them getting married, threatening enemies, bullying, travelling overseas, drinking every night or with a relationship every week. Under this possibility, cleared employees could report information to their FSOs based on what is displayed on social media pages.

Consider the DSS annual review. They usually interview employees to determine whether or not there are security vulnerabilities with the security program or cleared employees. They might ask questions about travel, briefings, security awareness and the protection of classified information. In the future they might access information on employees associated with the cleared facility through social media. That would be an easy task since most of us associate our profiles with our places of work. Now they could go in forearmed with information on foreign travel, changes in marital status, and more.

On the same topic, security clearance investigators could also use social media to research information on the subject of the investigation as well as develop character references. The information is available and the ease of obtaining that information would be beneficial to the investigator.

DoD continues to find answers to the question “What happened?” as they look into and try to prevent espionage and terror too many times committed by our trusted insiders. To better vet cleared employees, changes will need to be made. These changes must gain a more thorough “whole person” concept extending more into our observable behavior.

Enjoy the good life that your job has provided. But think seriously about what you want to post about yourself and how you want to world to perceive you. A little good judgment keeps you out of hot water. Bad decisions could possibly hold up or deny your chances of a security clearance.

Foot note:

[1] SECURITY FROM WITHIN, Independent Review of the Washington Navy Yard Shooting, NOVEMBER 2013