A Quick Guide to Security Clearances
Applying for a government position in cyber security? You’re going to see a lot of requirements for security clearances in the job descriptions.
Security clearance procedures are somewhat intrusive and extremely heavy on paperwork. So to make your life a little easier, we’ve created a crash course on preparing for them.
We’d also like to recommend the excellent PDF from ClearanceJobs, Security Clearance FAQs. This is packed with information and advice, including tips on filling out forms, explanations of acronyms and terminology, what to expect from the clearance interview and more.
What is a Security Clearance?
Any U.S. citizen or company who has access to classified government information must have security clearance. You may hear the term “eligibility for access” pop up in conversation. This is the same as a security clearance.
There are two types of government security clearances:
- Personnel Security Clearances (PCLs)
- Facility Security Clearances (FCLS)
Naturalized citizens are eligible for security clearance; foreign nationals are not. In lieu of a security clearance, non-U.S. citizens may be granted a Limited Access Authorization (LAA).
Who Issues Security Clearances?
Security clearances are issued by a variety of U.S. government agencies that deal with classified information. These include Executive Branch departments such as the:
- Department of Defense (DoD), including the DIA, NGA and NSA
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- Department of Justice (DoJ), including the FBI
- Department of State (DoS)
Not to mention the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Interior, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.
Independent agencies – including the CIA, EPA, FCC and USITC – also have the authority to issue clearances.
NOTE: Thanks to the nature of its tasks, the DoD issues more than 80% of all security clearances.
Will I Need a Security Clearance?
Jobs involving the U.S. government or military will require a security clearance. In particular, clearances are usually required for cyber security experts employed by a:
- Government agency
- Government contractor
- Organization that works with government contractors
Common careers requiring security clearance include:
If you work with sensitive information in areas other than the government or military, security clearance will not be needed. However, at the very least, many cyber security jobs will involve a background check.
Types of Security Clearances
The government has divided security clearances into three levels of access:
Confidential is the basic level of clearance (many military personnel have it). It means you will have access to material that could cause measurable damage to national security if it were disclosed.
- Confidential clearances require a thorough background check, including verification of your criminal, education and employment records. Immediate relatives and spouses/partners will be screened. Fingerprint and credit checks are common.
- Confidential clearances are reinvestigated every 15 years.
Secret is one step up from Confidential. You will be dealing with material that could cause grave damage to national security if it were disclosed.
- The background check covers the same bases as a Confidential clearance.
- Secret clearances are reinvestigated every 10 years.
Top Secret is the highest clearance issued. It means you will have access to information that could cause disastrous damage to national security if it were disclosed.
- The background check is supplemented by a field check, a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) and possibly a polygraph test. Your foreign travel and assets with be scrutinized. Your employers, co-workers, neighbors and other references will be interviewed.
- Top Secret clearances are reinvestigated every 5 years.
What’s more, if you’re working on highly sensitive programs, a.k.a. Special Access Programs, you’re going to need additional clearances. For example:
- Top Secret – Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)
- Top Secret – Special Access Programs (SAP)
NOTE: The Department of Energy issues something called “L” and “Q” Access Authorizations. “L” is similar to a Secret clearance; “Q” is similar to a Top Secret clearance.
How to Get a Security Clearance
First off, you cannot start the process. Once you are in a job that requires a security clearance (even if you are simply a hired consultant), a cleared contractor or a government agency will sponsor you.
But let’s say you are applying for a position dealing with classified information. How does the process work then?
- You meet the job qualifications and your potential employer wants to hire you
- You are issued a conditional offer of employment
- If there is no Background Investigation (BI) on file for you, you will be required to submit clearance documentation (e.g. SF86) to the hiring agency
- If you pass the hiring agency’s suitability test, the hiring agency will request a thorough BI/background check
- If you pass your BI/background check, you will be hired
If you don’t pass your background check, you are – to put it politely – out on your ear (see our section on Reasons for Security Clearance Denials below).
Security Clearance Process
Administration-wise, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) handles 90% of security clearances for Federal agencies and the contractor community. In its turn, OPM farms the work of background checks to outside contractors (e.g. CACI, KeyPoint Government Solutions, etc.).
The entire clearance process currently lasts anywhere from three months to one year, although the government is trying to shorten the time period.
Standard Form 86 (SF86)
The first step in your security clearance process will be filling in the lengthy Standard Form 86, a.k.a. the Questionnaire for National Security Positions. This 100+ page form is a thorough examination of your life.
You will have to supply details of your citizenship (including SSN and passport numbers), places of residence, education qualifications, employment history, military service, marital status, relatives, friends and foreign contacts/activities.
You will also be asked to list any criminal records, civil court actions, financial problems, subversive activities, drug involvement, mental health problems, alcohol-related incidents and misuse of IT systems.
Background Investigation/Background Check
Following up on the SF86, the government will conduct a background investigation (BI), a.k.a. background check. It will review and verify your:
- Scanned fingerprints
- Criminal records of the last 10 years
- Proof of U.S. citizenship + DOB
- Education degrees and diplomas
- Employment records
- Financial status
- Public records
Investigators may be sent into the field to check your police records. Field investigators may conduct interviews with neighbors, supervisors, co-workers, classmates and/or references. You will also undergo a security interview.
How To Speed Up The Process
The wheels of U.S. bureaucracy grind slow, and there is little you can do once your SF86 application is in process.
Nevertheless, as the writers of Security Clearance FAQs point out, there a few ways to ensure your application does not get held up:
- Have all your materials for SF86 ready. That way, when you’re asked to complete the electronic (e-QIP) version, you won’t have to waste any time rounding up records.
- Be honest and anal retentive about the information you provide. Incomplete, missing or erroneous info accounts for a large proportion of rejected applications. Pay attention to every detail, including zip codes!
- Request and review your free credit report before submitting SF86. There may be credit issues you are unaware of.
NOTE: The government has the option to grant candidates an interim security clearance (interim eligibility) pending the results of a full BI. This can be withdrawn at any time if authorities discover unfavorable information.
Reasons for Security Clearance Denials
Assuming that your rejection isn’t due to faulty or missing information, there are a variety of reasons why you may be denied security clearance.
- Criminal convictions – often incarceration for one year or more
- Unlawful use/addiction to controlled substances
- Mental incompetency
- Dishonorable discharge or dismissal
- Unwillingness to surrender a foreign passport
- Serious financial problems
- Intentional false statements
- Repeated alcohol abuse
- Pattern of criminal conduct/rule violations
Just to reiterate, providing false information during the clearance process is a GIGANTIC error. Investigators do not like to be lied to about alcohol, drugs or criminal records.
If you are up-front about your mistakes, your misconduct (especially if it occurred a long time ago) could be excused.
How Long Can I Keep My Security Clearance?
In most cases, you will keep your security clearance as long as:
- A government agency or cleared contractor continues to employ you
- You are expected to need/have access to classified information
- You comply with periodic reinvestigations
As we noted in the section on Types of Security Clearances, your clearance is reinvestigated after a predetermined number of years: 15 for Confidential, 10 for Secret and 5 for Top Secret.
You will be required to submit an updated security package and the government will conduct another BI. They will use your previous BI as a starting point.
The government has three clearance classifications:
- Active: a clearance that has not been terminated
- Current: a terminated clearance that is still eligible for reinstatement
- Expired: a terminated clearance that is ineligible for reinstatement
Expired clearances are pretty straightforward. If you leave a job that required a security clearance, your clearance will also be terminated.
However, let’s say you continue to work for the same government agency, but you’re no longer dealing with certain classified information. At that point, your clearance may be downgraded to Current. That leaves room for the government to reinstate it at a later date.
- Top Schools
- Top 18 Online Cybersecurity Bachelors Degrees
- Top 20 Online Bachelors in IT Degrees
- Top 30 Online Certificate Programs
- Top 17 Online Computer Forensics Programs
- Top 25 Online Masters Degrees
Some of the fastest-growing jobs are in information security. Jump-start your career by learning about the best online cybersecurity degrees.
An online master's in cybersecurity can boost your career options and earning potential. Check out our program rankings to kick off your search.
The best cybersecurity schools prepare students for exciting and lucrative IT careers. Explore our ranking of the best cybersecurity bachelor's degree programs.
Are you ready to find a school that's aligned with your interests?
Find the right education path to take advantage of this fast-growing industry and join the front-lines on technology and security.