Kathleen Murphy of the Federal Times reports on July 6, 2016 that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may rely on predictive analytics as part of background check reforms that were the subject of a recent House Oversight Committee hearing. The federal security clearance background check system is transitioning from the Federal Investigative Services (FIS) to a new entity called the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB). The NBIB is expected to have a senior privacy official to advance “privacy by design.”

Exactly how the NBIB plans to conduct background checks already has prompted congressional interest. Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester contacted OPM in May and raised concerns about the transition of the background check system to NBIB. A spokesman for Tester said the Senator’s office has received an oral briefing but no written reply yet from acting OPM Director Beth Cobert.

Why Federal Background Checks are Necessary

Some experts suggest that background checks of all federal personnel could help prevent workplace violence, citing the 2013 Navy Yard Shooter Aaron Alexis, who, in 2008 received a secret-level security clearance valid for 10 years, despite the following behaviors that were not reported on his application:

  • He was previously cited by the Navy on at least eight occasions for misconduct.
  • In 2004, he was arrested in Seattle, Washington for malicious mischief, after shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what he later described as the result of an anger-fueled “blackout.”
  • In 2008, he was arrested in DeKalb County, Georgia for disorderly conduct.

Checking In after the Clearance

After Alexis was granted a clearance, he exhibited the following concerning behaviors including the legal purchase of a weapon:

  • In 2010, Alexis was arrested in Fort Worth for discharging a weapon within city limits.
  • On August 4, 2013, naval police were called to the shooter’s hotel at Naval Station Newport and found that he had “taken apart his bed, believing someone was hiding under it, and observed that Alexis had taped a microphone to the ceiling to record the voices of people that were following him.” At the time of the incident, he was working for the contractor at the base.
  • On August 23, 2013, Alexis presented himself at a Providence, Rhode Island VA emergency room complaining of insomnia. Five days later, he sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency room of a VA medical center in Washington, D.C.
  • On September 14, 2013 – two days before the massacre – Alexis visited a small arms range in Lorton, Virginia, and tested an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. He inquired about buying a handgun at the store, but was told federal law does not allow dealers to sell such guns directly to out-of-state customers. Alexis instead purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and two boxes of shells, after passing a state and federal background check.

Can Public Information Help Save Lives?

There are public data sources – such as court judgments, bankruptcies, marriages, divorces and driving history – that can assist investigators in determining the background of an applicant. Since the establishment of the Fair Reporting Act (FCRA), the federal law now regulates how consumer reporting agencies use your information. For national security purposes, data can be used to help identify or predict insider threats ranging from espionage to active shooter situations.

Trend analysis, based on government policy directives, as well as real-time, continuous monitoring for suspicious behaviors could inform government officials of potential threats related to government system access, sharing of U.S. secrets or enhancing citizen safety.

As I mentioned in a blog I wrote earlier this year, Predictive Analytics for Policing: Overreliance on Violence Risk Prediction Scores, algorithms controlled and kept confidential by private sector entities may not be in the best interest of who needs the information the most. Because these are not subject to public scrutiny and oversight, their use can foster a false sense of security and useless profiling. Just because you are divorced, in debt and live in a high-crime neighborhood, does not make you a threat to our nation’s security. Who among us have not experienced a hardship during economic downturns or family dysfunction?

Many stakeholders have a moral obligation to weigh in on this critically important issue – including civil liberties groups, communities, federal state and local law enforcement, and the U.S. intelligence community. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m passionate about the need to get these issues right before an abuse of demographic profiling or a tragic act of targeted violence by another government employee occurs.