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Social media is fair game for security clearance

Is your Facebook page closing doors of opportunity? 

In the private sector, human resource experts encourage job hunters to tame down or scale back their social media accounts. Much of what is shared with friends and family is visible to current and prospective employers.

This holds true for federal employees and independent contractors, whether currently employed, scouting for federal jobs or seeking advancement. It is particularly true for federal positions involving security clearance. The higher the clearance level, the more harm a social media misstep can cause.

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Your social media accounts are fair game for security clearance

Last May, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper signed Security Executive Agent Directive 5 (SEAD 5). The policy authorized federal investigators charged with background checks to use publicly available social media information in the security clearance process.

Many investigators were already mining candidates' social media accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, dating sites, etc.) for potential security threats. SEAD 5 not only made the practice official but established parameters to protect privacy and civil rights. Investigators are not required to review social media but they have the green light if it the agency head deems it germane.

What investigators can and can't do

Background checks can only cover your publicly available social media presence. This includes information in your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, and news and photos you have posted to your Facebook wall or Twitter. Depending on your privacy settings, investigators may be able to view your "likes" and shares, and your reactions to other people's Facebook posts or Snapchat stories.

Investigators or supervisors may NOT:

  • Request or require your social media passwords
  • Log into your account or access your privacy settings
  • Disclose information that is not publicly available
  • "Friend" you under false pretenses

What you can do to protect your career and clearance

Security clearance investigators are not morality police. Their job is to gauge national security risks. That includes not only criminal acts and contact with foreign individuals but compromising behaviors that could put you at risk for being bribed, extorted or otherwise exploited. 

Aside from security clearance, your social media accounts offer valuable insights to recruiters, hiring managers and bosses about your character traits. Does your Facebook presence project "serious professional" or "party animal?" A poll by Careerbuilder.com found that 34 percent of employers have rejected job applicants based on publicly available Facebook material.

One way to control what is publicly available is to self-censor what you post and delete old material that could cast you in a bad light. Best practice is to stay away from:

  • Overtly political posts (regardless of party affiliation)
  • Glorifying drinking, shenanigans and promiscuity
  • Sexualized images (of yourself or others)
  • "Oversharing" personal information

It is also advisable to change your privacy settings to "friends and family only" and to not accept new friend requests from people who don't know. You may need to ask friends to take down unflattering pictures or to stop tagging you in posts.

Talk to an attorney who practices in federal employment law if you were turned down for employment, promotion or security clearance (or if your security clearance is being revoked) based on something that arose in a background check. It may be possible to appeal the decision.

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