'E-clearance' efforts rev up

Airport baggage screeners and federal sky marshals are among the numerous potential government employees who must undergo a background check before being hired for a federal job.

And with the number of background checks it must conduct on potential federal employees jumping by 50 percent to 60 percent this year, the Office of Personnel Management is turning to information technology to get the job done quickly and accurately, officials say.

Automated forms, digitized and easily searchable employee records, and electronic imagery have proven so important to OPM's investigative arm that $5.8 million of the new funds requested for the agency in the president's fiscal 2003 budget will bolster "e-clearance" efforts, among other things.

For example, a live scan machine, which makes a digital image of a prospective federal employee's finger.prints, has helped OPM cut the processing time for one of the most crucial elements of a background check from weeks to hours, said Richard Ferris, associate director of the agency's Investigations Service.

Instead of rolling each fingertip in sticky ink, the prospective em.ployee places his or her hand on a glass screen, and a digital image is taken, Ferris said. OPM adds electronic identifiers to the image and e-mails it to the FBI, which runs the image through its fingerprint database.

"In the past, getting [a response on a] fingerprint check from the FBI would take 30 to 60 days," Ferris said. "With the live scan equipment, we can get turn-around from the FBI within five hours."

Rapid-response technology will be a boon because OPM, now responsible for background checks on all civilian employees in the federal government, faces an increased workload in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed Nov. 19, 2001, established the Transportation Security Administration and mandated that explosives- detection systems be installed in airports nationwide by the end of this year.

To fulfill that mandate, the government must hire tens of thousands of airport baggage screeners and federal sky marshals — and OPM will have to investigate all of them, Ferris said. Last year, the agency completed approximately 1 million background checks, "but this year, we're looking at 1.5 [million] to 1.6 million," he said. "Or maybe even more."

In comparison, as recently as the late 1990s, OPM conducted only 200,000 to 400,000 background checks per year, Ferris said.

Private-sector security experts caution, however, that database searches for criminal history must be run at the state and local levels — as well as at the federal level — in order to be thorough.

"You could get a criminal history showing up at any one of those levels that wouldn't show up at others," said Dennis Farley, president of the Intelligence Group, based in Far Hills, N.J. "In New Jersey, for example, there is only one database that provides records on a statewide basis, and they consist of data from incarceration only."

Privacy advocates worry about how carefully access to personnel records will be controlled and how long information will be retained in databases once a federal employee retires or dies.

"What about those people who applied for a position and weren't accepted? How long are their records kept? This could be a major privacy consideration," said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Other elements of OPM's e-clearance efforts include:

* The creation of a set of standardized electronic security forms for governmentwide use.

* A clearance verification system for more than 100 civilian agencies, which will eventually be linked to a Defense Department system (see box).

* An initiative to digitize the millions of investigative records already on file at civilian agencies.

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Linking systems

Unexpectedly, one of the key elements in the Office of Personnel Management's e-clearance efforts is a Defense Department project.

DOD's Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS), begun in 1994 under the direction of the Air Force, became operational early this month and will be linked to OPM's e-clearance system.

JPAS includes more than 5 million personnel records on federal civilian employees, members of the U.S. military and defense contractors, and data on background investigations and security clearances, according to Peter Nelson, DOD's deputy director for personnel security.

OPM has invested more money to complete an increasing number of background investigations for DOD — from $112 million in investigative services in fiscal 2001 to $157 million in fiscal 2002 — in an effort to help relieve the security clearance backlog, Nelson said. "We've been working hand-in-glove with OPM."

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