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Misuse of IT Systems and Your Security Clearance

Post by Greg Rinckey

Misuse of information technology systems, whether intentional or unintentional, is of serious concern when it comes to evaluating your eligibility for a security clearance. Noncompliance with rules, procedures, guidelines or regulations pertaining to information technology systems may raise security concerns about your reliability and trustworthiness, and thus bring into question your willingness or ability to properly handle and safeguard sensitive systems, networks, and information. (See Adjudicative Guidelines: Guideline M).

Unintentional Misuse of IT Systems

So, you occasionally use your employer-issued work computer to download music, copy CD’s, or search the web. No big deal, right? Wrong!

Although none of the above conduct is illegal in nature, it can certainly affect your eligibility to obtain or maintain a security clearance if your employer prohibits the use of your work computer in that manner. Agencies are not just concerned with whether you use information technology systems in a legal manner. They are concerned with whether you use information technology systems in compliance with rules and regulations.

When it comes to information technology systems, the first thing you need to do is know your employer’s rules and regulations! All too often many of you are not even aware that you are prohibited from using your employer’s technology systems in certain ways. If you’re lucky, any prohibited use you’ve engaged in won’t result in any damage to national security. For the unlucky few who use their computer in such a way that results in a breach of security, you have not only misused information technology systems, but you have now also mishandled protected information. We’ll save that topic for another article!

If you’ve accidentally used your employer’s computers in violation of rules and regulations, this can be mitigated. Not only are Agencies interested in the conduct you’ve engaged in, they are interested in the likelihood of continued conduct. Therefore, if you inadvertently violated rules and regulations, you would explain that now that you know the rules, it won’t happen again.

Intentional Misuse of Information Technology Systems

This assertion will not be so persuasive for those of you who have knowingly and willfully violated your employer’s rules and regulations or if you’ve intentionally misused information technology outside of the workplace. Examples of misuse of information technology outside of the workplace include:

  1. Illegal downloading of copyrighted materials
  2. Viewing or downloading child pornography, and
  3. Transmission of offensive or harassing statements, just to name a few

Failing to follow and adhere to rules and guidelines goes to the heart of your judgment and trustworthiness, which is closely scrutinized when your security clearance is adjudicated or reinvestigated. With respect to intentional misuse of information technology, your employer will look at the intent of the behavior and the degree of malice. For instance, was the misuse motivated by simple curiosity or was it motivated by a specific intent to cause harm?

If your record or background discloses that you’ve intentionally misused information technology systems, conditions that can mitigate this issue include:

  1. The passage of time
  2. Frequency of misuse
  3. Type of misuse
  4. Circumstances surrounding the misuse, and
  5. Your age at the time of the misuse

Ultimately, your employer is trying to determine the likeliness that this conduct will recur. Therefore, of these mitigating conditions, the passage of time will be the most persuasive. The longer it has been since you’ve misused information technology, the less likely it will be that you will engage in this conduct again.

In summary:

1. Know the rules and regulations regarding the use of information technology systems. 

If your employer accuses you of misusing information technology systems, make sure that you understand exactly what you’re being accused of and know the rules and regulations. While you certainly want to know what you are not permitted to do, you also want to know what you are permitted to do. There may be circumstances in which your employer believes that your conduct qualifies as misusing information technology, when in fact it does not.

2. If your history reflects intentional misuse of information technology, be able to clearly explain how you and your circumstances have changed in such a way to persuade your employer that you will not engage in this conduct in the future. 

Greg Rinckey is the Managing Partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC, one of the largest federal sector employment law firms in the country. Greg is a recognized leader in the military and federal employment law sectors. Nicole Smith, Tully Rinckey Associate, represents government employees and contractors in a wide range of security clearance matters, with a concentration on application and interview counseling. Nicole spent nine years as a national security background investigator. Follow Tully Rinckey on Twitter @FedLawSource.


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