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Report: Social media relevant to background checks

Mar. 19, 2014 - 01:16PM   |  
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The Defense Department should consider reviewing the social media accounts of applicants as part of background checks for security clearances, according to a recent Pentagon report.

Currently, there is no governmentwide policy regarding the role of social media in personnel security investigations, and government agencies must request permission before adding that to their routine information sources such as law enforcement databases or court records.

The recommendation came Tuesday in a report about the Navy Yard shooting that killed 12 people last year. The gunman, Aaron Alexis, was a contractor and former sailor who held a security clearance despite “a pattern of misconduct and disturbing behavior,” according to investigators.

“Social media sites can include information of relevance in assessing suitability for clearances — and anyone who seeks to be trusted with a clearance should not object to allowing an evaluation of social media information and images that he or she may have voluntarily shared with hundreds or thousands of people worldwide,” according to the outside review requested by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The report did not identify any red flags among social media sites used by Alexis, but cited social media as one of many ways to improve the current background check system.

The Army recently conducted a pilot program that looked at social media during background checks. After examining more than 3,300 cleared Army personnel, the pilot program found “information relevant” to security background checks in “at least 20 percent” of the individuals, according to the report.

An analysis of that pilot program found that “while none of the issues identified were disqualifying by themselves, there is value in collecting information from social media sources,” the report said.

Yet there are potential privacy concerns that may arise from government investigators delving into the world of social media. For example, investigators could inadvertently begin investigating other individuals without legal authority.

The Army pilot program was careful to include only “potentially relevant material, with particular care taken to protect the ‘third-party data’ of others,” the report said.

Despite the privacy concerns, “the potential value of social media for clearance assessment cannot be ignored, and should be evaluated further,” the report said.

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