Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper authorized Security Executive Agent Directive Five, which permits the federal government to consider information from social media sources in background checks for security clearances. This new policy could have widespread effects on applicants for federal employment and other jobs requiring security clearance, as well as current employees seeking continued clearance or a higher level of clearance. Indeed, over four million individuals currently hold federal security clearances. In an op-ed published in The Hill, National Counterintelligence Executive Bill Evanina explained the reasoning for the new policy. He stated, “Social media has become an integral – and very public – part of the fabric of many Americans’ daily lives. We cannot ignore this important open source in our effort to safeguard our secrets – and our nation’s security.”

The new policy allows the federal government to “collect, use, and retain publicly available social media information” for the purpose of background investigations and security clearance determinations. Although this authority is broad, Security Executive Agent Directive Five does contain important limitations and protections. For example, the government is precluded from requesting individuals to provide their passwords to social media accounts and from asking individuals to log into their private account on an investigator’s behalf. In addition, agencies and investigators may not create or use pre-existing social media accounts to “friend”, “follow”, or otherwise connect with an individual in order to obtain information for the purposes of a security clearance investigation.

Security Executive Agent Directive Five is yet another example of the growing trend toward incorporating information posted on social media accounts for employment determinations. Employees and job seekers who require federal security clearances should be extra careful about the personal information posted on their social media accounts and their privacy settings. It could cost them their jobs.