An unexpected danger: COVID-19 puts government clearances at risk

COVID-19 has created a wealth of different risks for people around the world. But in the United States, another unexpected consequence is the influence of the pandemic on government security clearances. By disrupting the job market, the virus can create difficulties for members of the government and military when it comes to maintaining or advancing authorizations.

The link between stress and clearance approval

In the federal government and military, national security and the safety of individuals depend heavily on a person’s ability to focus and make good decisions. And while all soldiers, agents and employees have personal concerns they carry through their jobs, the government does consider the level of stress a person might be under. For this reason, they generally don’t want individuals to be heavily distracted by financial or other problems at home, and they look at behaviors and circumstances when deciding whether to approve deployments and clearances.

With this in mind, the intelligence community acknowledges that COVID-19 might put a small number of their personnel at risk. And these personnel generally fall into one of three groups:

  • Those who relied on income from a second job or other opportunity that they lost because of the pandemic.
  • Those in dual-income households who have a partner who lost a job the family relied on.
  • Those (generally higher-ranking) who own a home but rent to live elsewhere, and who suddenly cannot pay both their rent and their mortgage due to COVID-19 income loss.

In all of these cases, a service member might have had excellent financial habits in the past. But in the face of the pandemic, they find themselves unable to pay their bills.

In addition to creating these more direct problems, the pandemic can also increase the risk that government personnel become the targets of financial coercion or espionage. For example, in 2015, the Office of Personnel Management suffered a massive data breach affecting some 21.5 million people. Because of that breach, military personnel have received suspect messages that ask for certain services or offer money. New breaches can present similar threats. And while most individuals can properly identify these bad communications and either delete or report them, just as in the general public, some members of the military might respond because of inexperience, boredom or desperation because of their new COVID-19 stresses.

To make the situation worse, those looking to initiate an insider threat can combine data from multiple breaches for more sophisticated targeting. For instance, the federal government is seeing organizations cross-correlate information from various data breaches. Now people can look at someone’s security clearance, figure out that that person is in financial distress, and hone in on them as a target.

Proactively heading off clearance issues

Although the COVID-19 situation might look bleak, the good news is that some organizations can help the government fight clearance problems. For instance, they can conduct surveys and studies based on their credit and public records that give officials the same historical view and understanding of government employee and soldiers’ financial and other risks. This gives government agencies a proactive way to get out ahead of the problem. Once the agency has a sense of who is already in trouble, they can go to those service members and offer loans, grants, counseling or other kinds of help to get them back on track. The agency can also use data and analytics from partner organizations preventatively to compare profiles and figure out who might run into problems in the future and offer support that keeps them away from the wrong path.

Of course, one consideration here is that the government needs to determine how to measure financial or other stress well. Some people might not react to money problems created by COVID-19 strongly at all due to their temperament, the ability to rely on family members for assistance or other factors. Others might be the type to experience extreme anxiety if they carry credit card debt from one month to the next. So it’s not just about finding people who are or could be in trouble — it’s about finding the people in trouble who may react to that trouble in an extreme way.

Related to this concept, there’s also the question of how government agencies can shift their mindset from tackling insider threats to providing proactive employee assistance programs. These programs could serve as an early warning sign and support system against stresses that can create concerning, clearance-threatening behaviors. One piece of this is being able to verify that the programs actually do what they’re intended to do. The government agency can look at the financial performance of individual participants, as well as metrics that summarize the overall performance of a program, to achieve this goal and get insights about how they can be more effective.

Realistically, with millions of people involved, government agencies cannot monitor every aspect of their service members’ lives continuously, especially given the new challenges related to work-from-home environments. And an unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 can also increase other issues that can create security clearance risks, such as stress leading to drinking and repeated DUI offenses. In this sense, there are some limitations to what the government can do. Even so, the idea that the government can offer more proactive support through better use of data, technology, and partnerships deserves investment. It is up to them to decide which issues to pinpoint and prioritize, but addressing the potential financial impacts of COVID-19 is a good place to start.

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