Rules that bar feds from trolling Facebook, Twitter could have weeded out Snowden

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Most businesses regularly “Google” job applicants to see whether any red flags appear, but federal agencies generally shun checking social media websites — giving up a tool, analysts say, that could be helpful in weeding out everything from disability and immigration fraud to unsavory people trying to gain top-secret security clearance.

One specialist on background checks said that if the Office of Personnel Management allowed investigators to troll online, they could have spotted troubling signs with Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked details of many of the government’s most secret spy programs.

Some federal agencies contacted by The Washington Times were reluctant to talk about their policies. Others who have spoken about it said they worry about the veracity of information they find online and question whether their employees should be tasked with sorting through tidbits gleaned from Facebook or Twitter.

The rules are different for criminal investigators, who are allowed to use Facebook, Twitter and other sites to keep tabs on suspects or gather evidence.

But civil authorities are generally barred. That means U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which rules on immigration petitions, doesn’t allow adjudicators to look online for information that easily could weed out marriage fraud, and the Social Security Administration’s administrative law judges, who rule on disability applications, cannot see photos clearly showing able-bodied applicants.

The most pointed case, though, may be OPM, where background-check investigators are prohibited from using information gleaned from social media sites — information that analysts said could expose serious flaws in someone applying for top-secret clearance.

“It’s a crazy limit,” said Edward J. Appel Sr., who spent nearly three decades with the FBI and now runs a cybervetting service, iNameCheck, that conducts investigations and trains others on how to do them.

In a study he conducted for the government, Mr. Appel said, he found that about 10 percent of people have something online that would raise a red flag in a background investigation — serious enough that it could, if substantiated, mean they should be denied clearance.

But federal agencies are not actively looking and have forbidden their employees from doing do.

“Notoriously negative things are out there on the Internet. Nobody’s responsible for them,” said Mr. Appel, who is author of “Internet Searches for Vetting, Investigations and Open-Source Intelligence.” “Even when there’s an investigation that would call for their discovery, nobody’s out there trying to investigate them.”

It’s 2014 already

Pressure is building on OPM to catch up with the times, particularly in the wake of scandals involving Mr. Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

Both men had security clearances that enabled them to do major damage. In Mr. Snowden’s case, that meant leaking details of some of the country’s most secret spy programs. In Alexis’ case, authorities say, his clearance helped him gain access to the Navy Yard, where he killed 12 people before being killed himself.

Congress has begun investigating the security clearance process, and several bills have been introduced that would impose reforms — including pushing social media checks as part of the investigations process.

An OPM spokeswoman said she couldn’t talk about their procedures publicly and declined to confirm whether they checked websites.

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