In and out of government, employers hesitate to Google employees

Iraq War veteran Ivan Lopez ranted on Facebook about being full of hate, just before he shot and killed three people at Fort Hood in Texas earlier this year. Brian Howard also posted a warning on Facebook, shortly before he set fire to the radar facility in Chicago last month and caused flight delays nationwide.

With the federal government on the alert for the next insider threat, contractors are trying to figure out how they legitimately can monitor employees on social media, said Charlie Sowell, a senior vice president at Salient Federal Solutions and former high-ranking intelligence official. He spoke at an event Thursday before members of the Professional Services Council.

Social media is most useful when it comes to revealing someone’s personal conduct and psychological conditions, said Sowell. But without much guidance from the federal government nor case law from the courts, firms are struggling to find a balance between protecting their employees and property from harm, and respecting those same employees’ rights to privacy and free speech.

Yet there is a wealth of information employers can find online without crossing that line, Sowell said. While Facebook posts or emails may be hidden behind a password or privacy setting, other data, like court records or news reports, is readily found in a simple Google search.

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“This information is knowable, and we’re not using it,” he said.

“The lack of policy on the government side of the house, in terms of the security process, is somewhat of a hindrance,” Sowell said. “As that policy comes out, defense contractors in particular will follow suit and be more comfortable in implementing similar programs.”

Government not using social media to vet cleared personnel

It’s not that the federal government has ignored the issue. The intelligence community has spent years testing ways it could use social media in investigations of security clearance holders. Online information could be critical, as the government moves toward a real-time system of evaluating those professionals’ suitability, and away from periodic reinvestigations every few years. Pilot programs have focused on publicly available electronic information. No one was asked for their passwords, according to a government official who participated in the discussion but did not get permission to use his name publicly.

The pilot programs indicated that clues on social media, such as the foreign connections an employee might have on the networking site LinkedIn, would prove a helpful addition to the polygraphs, acquaintance interviews and other data that make up a background reinvestigation. As a side benefit, the official said, through the social media pilots, the government was able to identify employees at risk of committing suicide and intervene. Yet the government has been slow to finalize its policy governing the use of social media. Instead, it does Google searches “here and there” in these sorts of investigations.

Regardless, more contractors will begin continuously evaluating employees with security clearances on social media, Sowell predicted. For one thing, forthcoming Defense Department guidance, known as National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual Conforming Change 2, will direct cleared contractors to have insider threat programs led by senior managers.

In addition, no company wants to follow in the steps of The Experts, the subcontractor that employed Aaron Alexis, the gunman who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last year. A Navy investigation of the shooting blamed the company for not telling the government that colleagues had raised concerns about Alexis’ mental state.

“When a company is put in a spotlight where there was information that they should’ve known about, or could’ve known about, but didn’t because they didn’t have a policy or program in place, then the heat gets turned up more quickly,” Sowell said. “Those companies are more apt to implement insider threat detection programs, or continuous evaluation, or look at new sources of information like social media.”

More broadly, companies are incorporating social media into their personnel practices in other ways. Nearly 4 out of 10 companies in a 2013 CareerBuilder Study reported using social media to research job candidates. Those that do are most likely to eliminate candidates who post provocative or inappropriate information about themselves, such as photos showing them drinking or using drugs. Yet 19 percent of hiring managers surveyed said they found something online about a candidate that led to a job offer.

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