Congress probes use of social media in background checks

Congress probes use of social media in background checks
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House lawmakers at a Friday hearing will raise questions on why federal agencies are not mining social media data to conduct background checks on employees.

Officials from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is in charge of many federal background checks, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have been called to testify before the House Oversight Committee. 

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Officials will likely give an update on a little-known OPM pilot program for using automated web crawlers to scour the internet for public information about people undergoing background checks.

The OPM has declined to respond to multiple requests for details about the program, which was first disclosed in April.

The committee, though, noted that the project is meant specifically for background checks on people requesting a security clearance. 

"Do you have the capability to conduct automated and expansive searches using web crawlers/software to accurately identify publicly available electronic information pertinent to a specific Subject?" OPM asked in a questionnaire to potential vendors.

The public information would include news sites, social media platforms — like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram — blogs, online forums, e-commerce sites or more traditional sources like online court documents.

Congress has pushed federal agencies to start using social media reviews in some background checks. 

The budget deal passed in December 2015 required the director of national intelligence to have military agencies and the intelligence community bolster their security reviews for people with access to classified information. The provision specifically called for reviews of social media. 

In the past, lawmakers have raised concerns about reports of companies requiring job applicants to turn over their social media usernames or passwords. Many considered that an invasion of personal privacy. 

But the provision Congress passed is much more narrow. It requires only a search of information that is already in the public domain and posted on sites around the web. 

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers in a letter last year pressed the Department of Homeland Security to incorporate social media into its screening process for visa applicants.

The letter to the agency came amid conflicting reports about the department not reviewing that public information. It also followed a deadly shooting attack in San Bernardino, Calif., last year.