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Saturday, November 26, 2022

PERSPECTIVE: Use Analytics to Bump Security Background Checks Into the Modern Age

The federal government has a backlog of more than 700,000 pending background check investigations, a total roughly the same size as the population of Seattle. Not only does that total represent an inefficient process, but a potential national security issue.

A group of senators this past February called for an overhaul of the background check system that currently takes 200 to 400 days to complete. The issue has reached the White House, where a number of staffers have worked on interim clearances while they wait for the approval process to be completed.

The background check process has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1947. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) said the security clearance process has failed to adapt to the times, saying it “relies on shoe-leather field investigations that would be familiar to fans of spy films.”

It is time for that to change. While there will be no simple solution to this problem, the use of data analytics can bring some much-needed improvements to the background check process.

How Analytics Can Help

Federal background checks are incredibly important. They strive to ensure that the person who is receiving the clearance – no matter what level – will not use the information they are able to access in ways that are illegal or threaten national security. By looking at a person’s history, along with their personal and professional connections, investigators can more effectively assess the risk that person poses.

Analytics can accelerate background checks by processing and analyzing data to raise the red flags that may take a person much longer to find. It does this by uncovering anomalies and correlations that could indicate a susceptibility to clearance abuse, and alerting investigators to their existence. This saves human workers from the time-consuming and laborious effort of physically combing through data. They can use their time more judiciously to analyze and investigate the anomalies.

Agencies can wield analytics to generate risk profiles, assign risk scores and reduce margins of error. For example, agencies conducting background checks could implement a process that looks at a person’s debt. Candidates with sufficient debt, especially to foreign business associates, may represent a higher risk to abuse their security clearance for personal gain. Investigators could prioritize additional investigation measures before issuing a clearance.

While this is a simple example, there are many other areas within the background check process ripe for improvement with analytics. It’s important to note that analytics can help speed and focus the process, but do not replace the experience and common sense of human beings. With decisions that could impact national security or, at the very least, a person’s professional future, humans must remain integral to the process.

Saving Valuable Time

Along with flagging data that is out of the norm or that signifies a substantial risk, analytics can simply serve as a valuable time saver. For instance, analytics could pick up inconsistencies in a background check. An applicant may list conflicting addresses, incorrect income information or may simply leave a portion of the application blank. Missing or inconsistent data is a simple data management issue, and the technology can easily identify these errors and flag them for an investigator. While investigators have, and can, do this work with the old “eyeball” approach, analytics can spot such issues immediately.

As the backlog of applications show, investigators have too much work to do and not enough time to do it. One approach would be to hire more people. A more effective approach is to arm the current staff of investigators with the technology and capabilities to be successful.

The background check process, and the resulting backlog of clearances, has reached a critical point that our leaders believe threatens our security. We owe it to the overworked and overwhelmed investigators to provide the tools they need to do their jobs, so that thousands of dedicated public servants can be cleared to do theirs.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Jen Dunham
As a Solution Specialist within the Security Intelligence Global Practice, Jen is focused on providing subject matter expertise and assistance to Government teams addressing various security risks such as Cyber Security, Insider Threat, Targeting/Lead Generation, and other Intelligence-specific applications of the SAS Security Intelligence Foundation. Having served as an all-source intelligence analyst in the United States Army, and having since worked closely with numerous law enforcement, defense, and intelligence organizations around the world, Jen has a unique and comprehensive view within these areas and how their tradecraft and missions vary. Jen has worked in mission areas to include; counterterrorism, counterespionage, counternarcotic, peacekeeping missions, priority intelligence requirements, and the Balkans (Bosnia-Herzegovina). Over the last 22 years, Jen has held a security clearance with numerous agencies supporting organizations such as FBI, DEA, NSA, CIA, NCTC, State Department, Department of Energy, and also State and Local Law Enforcement. Jen also has in-depth knowledge (through previous employment) of technology and information companies such as i2, Dun & Bradstreet, Choicepoint and Thompson Reuters.

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