What is Security Clearance?
Before elaborating on the kinds and levels of clearance, it is beneficial to understand the meaning of the term.
Security clearance refers to a license, status, or permission granted to an individual that allows access to information considered classified or restricted. Typically, state and federal organizations and agencies use the term when permitting a person to view sensitive information. Private corporations may also require individual employees to obtain security clearance before accessing proprietary details, such as design plans for a product.
The United States federal government’s Information Security Program includes the classification of national security information, its storage, the safeguard of it, as well as dissemination. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) oversees this program. The Agency’s tasks exceed security issues; it authorizes humanitarian efforts around the world.
Several law enforcement agencies require clearance, as examples, the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Drug Enforcement Agency. The U.S. Department of State, including these agencies, has the authority to issue a security clearance to employees and contractors. Other entities that have the clearance requirements are the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Labor, Veterans Affairs, and Treasury. There are three primary levels:
- Non-sensitive positions
- Public trust positions
- National security positions
A federal security chart expands the levels to six. The range is from Level I (non-sensitive) to Level 6, which is in the National Security category of secret and high risk.
What about jobs in Cybersecurity?
Work in this field for any government agency, contractor, or organization that associated with government contractors will demand security clearance. The following examples illustrate this premise.
Depending on where you work in cybersecurity in this agency, your security clearance will be either secret or top secret. The former refers to those whose access to sensitive information is on a need-to-know basis. This lower level generally pertains to officials who do not routinely work in an FBI facility or on a task force. Cybersecurity experts would likely fall into the top-secret category.
The top-secret clearance allows officials to move unescorted throughout an FBI facility or office. The higher level allows personnel access to information classified as Top Secret. The background check covers ten years for this level. It takes 45 to 60 days to complete the process upon receipt of the application. Your character, mental health, misdemeanors, criminal records, and judgment are criteria affecting clearance access.
The Department of HS (DHS) is another opportunity to work in cybersecurity. Most positions within the DHS require a security clearance. Since 2016, the process is the responsibility of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB). Your career could take you into one of these three categories:
- Immigration and Travel: Protect the United States’ transportation system and oversees lawful immigration.
- Mission Support: A range of duties that include civil rights, fraud detection, intelligence, science, and technology.
- Law Enforcement: There are several branches to this category:
- Protect the President and VP and heads of state
- Secure our borders
- Infrastructure and economic security
- Interagency Law Enforcement Training
The DHS has more than 230,000 employees
The DHS, within its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, seeks an IT Cybersecurity Specialist, for example. The position requires that the applicants have or be able to obtain s Top Secret/SCI (sensitive compartmented information) or lower-level clearance. Any security clearance mandates that you are an American citizen.
Another example is the job posting at USAJOBS for a Cybersecurity Engineer in the Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Candidates will need to have the same Top Secret/SCI clearance, plus a Counterintelligence Polygraph examination on a random basis to maintain your eligibility.
Cybersecurity positions in this sector that have lucrative contracts with the U.S. government will need a security clearance. ManTech, for example, acts as a contractor for the Department of Defense and branches of the military. The company also participates in training cybersecurity professionals in conjunction with Purdue University Global’s Cybersecurity Registered Apprenticeship Program.
There are jobs listed on the ManTech site in cybersecurity that require a Top Secret or SCI clearance. The title of Principal Cyber Advisor in Maryland deals with national security projects. Applicants need to have a current TS/SCI clearance.
Background vs. Security Clearance
The two terms are not interchangeable. However, there could be some overlap in the processes to obtain background information on a job applicant. As outlined above, security clearance is to access classified or sensitive information. Therefore, security measures are imperative to reduce the risk of threats to U.S. national security.
Governmental agencies conduct background checks as part of the investigative process before approving a level of clearance. The private or corporate world also performs background checks as part of a vetting process before offering an applicant a job.
According to a 2017 survey of 1,528 Human Resources managers, 96% reported that their company does background checks.
The majority (89%) do criminal record checks to help ensure the safety of employees.