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Federal Security Clearance System Added to Government Accountability Office’s “High-Risk List”

By Michael Klazema on 2/20/2018
Federal auditors have identified the government’s security clearance screening process as a “high-risk” program, according to a recent report from Nextgov.com.

Compiled and maintained by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the “high-risk list” identifies the 35 highest-risk programs and departments in the federal government. The federal security clearance process was on the list from 2005 to 2011 but was removed at the start of the decade based on “substantial progress.” That progress has reportedly not continued at an acceptable pace, hence the program’s return to the high-risk list.

One of the big problems, according to the federal audit, is the security clearance system is simply too outdated to work properly in 2018. The program relies on “legacy information technology systems” that do not protect sensitive data as securely as they should. These systems are susceptible to hacks and have been the targets of data breaches in the recent past. In 2014, USIS, a security clearance contractor, suffered a data breach. The next year, the Office of Personnel Management was the victim of another breach.

Both USIS and the Office of Personnel Management were relieved of security-clearance-related responsibilities shortly after the breaches. The National Background Investigations Bureau was created to take over clearance duties from the OPM (though the organization exists within the OPM). Per coverage, little has been done to correct the security gaps that allowed the OPM breach to happen, which compromised sensitive personal information concerning 20 million former government employees and their family members.

In addition to IT security problems, the federal security clearance program is reportedly decrepit in the way it vets candidates for clearances. Rather than taking a data-focused approach, much of the screening process relies on in-person interviews. For decades, the screening process has used interviews with friends and neighbors to make determinations about prospective employees. These interviews must be conducted at the time of a federal hire and every five to ten years thereafter.

As of last September, the security clearance background check backlog includes more than 700,000 incomplete investigations. This backlog means background checks for security clearances take months to process. In comparison, at backgroundchecks.com, we offer background check services that process instantlybackground check services that process instantly and others that take 1-3 business days on average.

The delays have consequences, allowing high-up government officials to work without proper security clearances. This month, controversy exploded over the background check of White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, accused of domestic abuse by both of his ex-wives. Porter was allowed to work on an “interim security clearance” while his background check was taking place.

There is a proposed solution to the problem. Defense and intelligence officials want government agencies to switch to a system of “continuous evaluation.” This process regularly checks the public record for for arrest reports, credit activity, and other information. Continuous evaluation would allow for efficient ongoing screening of federal employees. It could also speed up the initial security clearance process and potentially help cut down the backlog.

“Continuous evaluation” is comparable to backgroundchecks.com’s Ongoing Criminal Monitoring service. With this service, we help employers by running monthly background checks of their employees through our US OneSearch database. If we find new hits or red flags, we send the employer a notification.

Gene Dodaro, the head of the GAO, is expected to send a letter to the OPM that outlines his concerns about the security clearance process along with potential solutions.

Sources:
http://www.nextgov.com/cybersecurity/2018/01/hackable-vulnerabilities-long-waits-return-clearance-backlog-gao-high-risk-list/145488/
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/02/08/white-house-has-little-say-why-accused-abuser-rob-porter-kept-his-job/319409002/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/government-auditor-says-background-check-review-process-is-at-high-risk/2018/01/29/3ddf57d2-053d-11e8-8777-2a059f168dd2_story.html?utm_term=.8c6881555583

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