What Is Involved in a Security Clearance Background Check?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 23 December 2019
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A background check is a process for evaluating a person to determine if she poses a security risk in a setting where there are concerns about conflicts of interest, political instability, or other matters. For jobs with the government, background checks are often required, and they can also be part of the application process for companies with security concerns. This may be handled internally or by a third party agency with experience in the area of conducting investigations and generating reports.

The level of detail in a background check can vary. It often includes collecting fingerprints from the candidate to run them against criminal databases and putting them on file if they are not already there. The candidate may also undergo an interview with a security professional who will screen for obvious issues. Some government agencies require a polygraph test, where the applicant undergoes evaluation with medical equipment and a skilled interrogator.

Investigation of friends and family is also common. Representatives may interview people who know the applicant to identify security risks like a history of drug use or gambling. They can also look for friends and family to check for connections that might cause a problem. If a candidate's mother is deeply in debt, for example, he might be tempted to accept bribes on the job. Likewise, if a close friend is a member of a radical political organization, there might be concerns about job loyalty.


The investigator will review the candidate's criminal record and look up her financial history. This can be important for identifying problems like debts, unexplained expenses, and so forth. A background check will also include interviews with prior employers and reviews of academic records. The goal is to create a complete and detailed report, with any risks flagged for the convenience of human resources personnel. They can use the background check to decide if the applicant is suitable for the job or would pose an unacceptable risk.

Background checks can occur for existing employees as well as new applicants. As employees work their way up in the ranks at an organization, they may need to undergo reevaluation and may also need a background check to get a higher security clearance. In order to handle sensitive information, the employee must have the right clearance. There are often several layers to allow new employees to gain experience and demonstrate trustworthiness without access to highly sensitive materials that could pose a security risk.


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