This article is about criminal backgrounds and how they can impact those entering the field of cybersecurity.  If instead, you are looking for information regarding security clearances in cybersecurity, we suggest you review our article on how to get a security clearance in cybersecurity.  If you’re interested in the related topic of employer drug testing in the cybersecurity field, you can view our article on cybersecurity employer drug testing here.

The recent expansion of the cyber security field has come with a plentiful amount of jobs at all levels. One common question about the cyber security field relates to a prior arrest or criminal record, and how a prior record might affect someone’s chances at pursuing and succeeding in a cyber security career. Since someone with a criminal record might want to pursue a career in cyber security, in this article I wanted to explore what impact a criminal record may have on career prospects, and what someone can do to minimize that impact.

So, can you get a job in cyber security with a criminal record?  Getting a job in cyber security with a criminal record is possible but depends on whether the crime was a felony or misdemeanor and how long ago the crime was committed.  Cyber security positions within the government tend to have stricter requirements regarding criminal backgrounds than do positions in the private sector.

With all of that said, there are still lots of questions to answer regarding whether your particular situation and how that may impact your career options in cyber security.  Let’s jump in and answer the big questions.

Felonies vs. Misdemeanors and Cyber Security Jobs

Does your criminal background history include a felony or a misdemeanor?  With many jobs in the cyber security field a security clearance is required.  Now the level of security clearance may vary depending on the job title or the company you were working for, but with a security clearance of any level comes a background check.  This means that the investigating agency will check all of your past legal history, as well as prior addresses and places of employment.  They will also speak with your associates and neighbors, in many cases.  Regarding past criminal auctions, if you have a felony of any kind in your criminal history, this would make getting a cyber security job that requires a security clearance nearly impossible.  Many employers, especially government agencies, will consider a felony an automatic rejection.  With this said, it is important to note that it is imperative that you do not lie regarding your criminal history (even if you believe it will disqualify you), as that is also grounds for rejection.

Having a misdemeanor on your record would also dampen your chances, but in many cases will not automatically eliminate you.  In these examples, you’ll notice that I am referring to a single incident.  If your record includes multiple felonies or multiple misdemeanors, most agencies will see that as a negative pattern of decision making and judgement, which will weigh heavily against you.

Are You Pursuing a Cyber Security Job That Requires a Clearance?

Do you want to work for the government or in the private sector?  The importance of this question can’t be overstated.  As touched on with the last question, it would be a lot harder to get a job in the government then it would with a private sector employer if you had a criminal background.  Private sector employers have the flexibility to adjust their decision making and hiring process as they see fit and may have clients that are not concerned with the criminal background of an employee.  The government is far more likely to not deviate from their hiring standards and practices.

With that said, a private company very well may not require a security clearance (unless they are acting as a contractor for the government), but will most likely run a background check, especially if they are a larger employer.  Many small employers however (20 employees or less) have told us that they still do not complete background checks regularly as a process of employment but may do a basic judicial case search within the state that they reside.

If you have a criminal record, the good news for you is that you may be able to explain the severity of your crime to your employer, and in many cases, an employer may be forgiving, depending on when the crime occurred and the nature of the crime itself.  Let’s look at that now.

The Nature of the Crime Weighs Heavily On Your Hiring Potential

What was the type of crime you committed? If the crime you committed was a white-collar crime like theft, embezzlement, or tax fraud, your chances of being hired at a private sector company are probably extremely slim, as most employers understand what those types of crimes mean and how they could negatively impact their business.  But if your crime was something like a minor drug possession, or a lesser crime that can be explained and proven that you have now matured and are a better person who has put that episode behind you, then you may be able to persuade the employer to give you a chance.  In these cases, we have found that many employers are willing to give an applicant a chance, especially if the applicant is likable and can sufficiently explain their history.

A Criminal Record from Long Ago Is Forgivable

How long ago was the crime committed? The timing of the crime is probably the most important factor, and is especially relevant to the minor misdemeanor charges you may have.  For example, if you are in your late twenties or early thirties, and the crime that you committed happened when you were 18, then you may be able to explain to the employer that the crime was committed out of teenage stupidity and that you have become a more upstanding citizen to society since.  Many employers can relate to poor decision making that may have occurred in youth, and may be more likely to be sympathetic to this situation.

How to Increase Your Chances of Being Hired

If asked, be upfront with the employer and be ready to explain.  Having a criminal history instantaneously takes you a peg down from the rest of the candidates hoping to get the same job. But with the right social interaction anything is possible. A great idea is to be as upfront with the employer as possible. Telling the employer your side of the story before they can make their own judgment gives you the best chance of them seeing the brightest side of your ethical code. As with any job it is always good to keep your resume and your intelligence on the subject up to snuff to give yourself the best chance and to make your criminal record as much of an afterthought as possible.

You can choose to not divulge information if you’re not asked.  Though it is probably best to be upfront about your criminal past, if you really want to take the risk you also could just try not to bring it up. If the job you are getting doesn’t require a background check, then it could be in your best interest to not mention your background, while always being prepared to explain if and when the need arises. This could be the case for an entry level position in the cyber security field where you might not be tasked with handling any valuable information and your past might not be an issue from the employer’s perspective.

Attend professional networking events to build up your social network.  Another great thing to do is socially network. This is something people often overlook but getting to know as many people in the field as possible is a great way of increasing your odds of finding a job. Go to as many events as possible and stay active on sites like LinkedIn or any cyber security forums. If you have an opportunity for a job in the future with an employer you already have meet that instantly gives you a boost, and with a criminal background you have to take every opportunity you can to impress because as stated before, you’re already at a disadvantage. Be your best self when meeting anyone because you never know if you could be sitting across a desk from them in an interview at some point in the future.

Get involved in the community. From personal experience I’ve found that employers really love seeing if a candidate has done any sort of community service. This can be a informal way of saying I’m a good person and I care about my community. But this can also be a great way to show an employer that you have been on the straight and narrow since you’ve committed a crime and can show how driven you are.

This is just another great way to show your ethical code, and while another candidate for the same job may not have to do this, this is a good way to make an employer see you as equal. A great example of a community service act is to see if any tech companies in your community need help with a public event, or to see if any non-profits in your area need technical assistance.

Can Criminal Hackers Get a Job?

A popular topic that is been around for a long time is that some of the best criminal hackers have been hired by the government due to their skill. While it is true that this has happened before, it shouldn’t be something to bank on and not your best path to a cyber security career.

Can I Become a Penetration Tester with a Criminal Background?

Penetration testing is a cyber career pathway that is also known as ethical hacking. This is where a company may hire a team of ethical hackers to test their system in an attempt to find any vulnerabilities that can be preemptively fixed in order to prevent future attacks. If you have a criminal history, and especially if it is in relation to hacking, a company is most likely not going to take a chance on you simply due to the potential risk involved.

Is Cyber Security Self-employment an Option?

Being self-employed can be very difficult in the cyber field, but it is a viable career path, and one that increasingly more cyber professionals are choosing to pursue.  If you have a criminal background, self-employment may just be the best option for you to get started in cyber security.

A prime example of this is a man named Kevin Mitnick. Also known as the world’s most famous hacker, Kevin is a convicted hacker and in 1995 was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison due to various computer and communications related crimes. With his advanced knowledge in hacking he decided to start a security consulting company called Mitnick Security Consulting.  If you truly have the skills and the proper business know-how, self-employment could be a viable career path for you.  If you are considering this option, you should also consider speaking with a local employment counselor in your area, as they may be able to connect you with small business resources that can help you get moving in the right direction.


When you have a criminal history getting a job in general will be harder than the average person, and in the cyber world it will be even harder. But anything is possible with determination, and though your options will be limited in the cyber security field, you could still build a successful career. Remember to be open minded about opportunities and consider that you may have to open your expectations in order to find a suitable job.  Be realistic about your opportunities and go for what you strongly believe you can achieve. Get to know as many people as possible and prove to everyone that you are a good person that can serve as a trustworthy employee, regardless of your past.


About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day is a cybersecurity professional with over twenty years of experience in the IT, cybersecurity, and technology training fields. He has a degree in Computer Information Science and CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+, Server+, CySA+, and Cisco CCNA certifications.