- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2014

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.

But OPM Director Katherine Archuleta and Stephen F. Lewis, a Defense Department official involved with security clearance issues, testified to Congress last month about the issue, confirming that social media sources aren’t used in background checks.

“Social media is not a tool that’s currently being used; however, it is being studied and one of the challenges of using social media is validating the information that’s available on the Web,” Mr. Lewis said.

Cynthia Hetherington, president of the Hetherington Group, which conducts online investigations, said if OPM had allowed investigators to dig through the Web for information, Mr. Snowden might have been blocked from gaining the security clearance he later used to collect and leak information on top-secret snooping programs.

“If I were doing a background check on Snowden I would have flagged him in 10 minutes,” Ms. Hetherington said, stating that there would have been telltale signals in his online persona that would have raised flags. “We would have had that — we would have flagged that a long time ago.”

She said it was a “huge, huge error” not to check online — not just social media sites, but also what’s known as the “Deep Web,” which is content not readily accessible by usual search engines.

“This is a weak link right here. This is a big vulnerability for us,” she said.

A tool left unused

While OPM is coming under scrutiny because of the news, other agencies could benefit from Web checks — but likewise prohibit them.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes immigration applications, doesn’t allow either front-line adjudicators or fraud investigators to make the checks.

In reply to The Washington Times, the agency declined to talk about its policy, saying only that it “follows the privacy policy related to social media established by the Department of Homeland Security.”

Don Crocetti, a former high-ranking official at USCIS who now runs the Immigration Integrity Group LLC, said the agency developed guidelines more than two years ago after reviewing what officers already were doing. The guidelines were designed to let officers use social media to try to weed out immigration fraud.

Although the policy was ready for approval in 2011, it never got a final go-ahead.

“I am very disappointed to learn this essential tool has yet to be authorized for use by USCIS officers. This is clearly a reflection of individuals in positions of authority who do not appreciate or understand the significance of engaging technology to combat unprecedented levels of fraud,” Mr. Crocetti said.

Another agency that limits Web checks is the Social Security Administration, which has declined a request from administrative law judges who rule on disability applications, to be able to look online for evidence that someone isn’t as disabled as claimed.

Social Security says its adjudicators aren’t banned from reviewing social media evidence if it comes to them, but they aren’t allowed to go looking for it.

“Only fraud investigators are equipped to verify and corroborate information found on social networks in a way that adjudicators generally are not,” said Kia Anderson, a spokeswoman for the agency.

She said those conducting the initial reviews should focus on going over the applications presented to them, and if they come across red flags, they should refer those to law enforcement for follow-up.

“Adjudicators should do what they are trained to do — review voluminous files to determine eligibility for disability benefits. Office of Inspector General fraud investigators should do what they are trained to do — vigorously follow up on any evidence of fraud,” Ms. Anderson said.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who helped expose a major disability fraud ring in West Virginia, has urged a change in policy.

“If an individual claims to be disabled, and then publicly posts a picture participating in a sport or physical activity on a social media website, such information should be used to determine if the claimant is truly disabled,” Mr. Coburn said in a 2012 letter asking for a policy change.

Caught red-handed

The value of social media was underscored this year after New York authorities announced a major raid in a Social Security disability fraud ring involving police officers and firefighters who were claiming to be too injured from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Some of the dozens of officers and firefighters claiming disability had posted photos to their social media accounts showing them fishing, flying helicopters and, in one photo, an officer riding a jet ski, smiling and making a vulgar gesture toward the camera.

Then there is the Internal Revenue Service, which conducts criminal investigations and civil audits and finds the different focuses mean different policies.

The tax agency said it doesn’t “select taxpayers for examination based on searches of social media sites” but that there is a use when it comes to criminal investigations.

“The criminal investigation department will use all the information available when they’re trying to track down people, trying to track down assets. And so there I think it’s appropriate to use whatever information they have that they need to. But that’s when we’re tracking down people who in fact have violated the law, have not paid the taxes they owe,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress last month.

But pressed further about whether that meant the IRS was looking at social media only for criminal cases, Mr. Koskinen told lawmakers he was unsure.

“I do not know about that. I will find out the answer. It’s an important question,” he said.

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