Security Clearances and Cybersecurity: What You Need To Know

This article is about the process of security clearances and how they impact those entering the field of cybersecurity.  If you are looking for information regarding working in cybersecurity with a criminal background, we suggest you review our article on criminal backgrounds in cybersecurity or our article on cybersecurity employer drug testing first.

The process of becoming a professional in the cybersecurity field can be a lot different than other career pathways. In the cybersecurity field, you could be tasked with handling very important or sensitive information, and this can bring up the question of whether you need to acquire a security clearance to work in cybersecurity at all.  In this article I want to answer that question and identify if you really do need a security clearance to work in cybersecurity.

So, do you need a security clearance to work in cybersecurity?  You do not need a security clearance to work in cybersecurity, especially in the private sector; however, many cybersecurity jobs connected to the government will require that someone has a clearance or is clearable.  Jobs that require a clearance often pay more than similar, non-cleared positions.

Let’s dive in and look at security clearances, and how they can impact your cybersecurity career.

When Would You Need a Security Clearance in Cybersecurity?

In order to work in many cybersecurity positions that have access to classified government information, you may be required to obtain a security clearance. There are two main types of security clearances, this being a Personnel Security Clearance (PCL), or a Facility Security Clearance (FCL). The only prerequisite to obtaining one of these clearances is you must be a U.S. citizen.

Who Issues Security Clearances?

Security clearances are exclusively issued by the federal government and can be issued by any number of agencies within the government.  For the cybersecurity field, many of the clearances are initiated by the department of defense due to the high number of positions that are in or connected to the National Security Agency (NSA.)

In all cases of security clearances, the hiring agency will be the one to initiate the clearance process, as individuals cannot do this on their own.  When you apply for a position that requires a clearance, if the agency wants to move forward with your hire, they will begin and manage the clearance investigation process.

What Types of Security Clearances are There?

Working in different sectors of the government can mean there are different levels of information you may have access to.  Because of this, there are three different security clearances for positions in the federal government.

Confidential Level Security Clearances

A confidential clearance is needed when you have access to information that can cause measurable damage to national security. Most military personnel have this level of clearance. Confidential security clearances require an extensive background check. You should expect this background check to include credit checks and screenings of family members and spouses and other associates, including perhaps friends, neighbors, business associates and co-workers, and teachers. Also, know that to obtain this clearance you will be reinvestigated every 15 years. This investigation can last for a few weeks to a few months or longer depending on the individual’s background.  While this is a general rule of thumb, if an investigation uncovers a red flag, no matter how superficial or unimportant, the process can last much longer.

Typically, the background process for younger people will be shorter and easier than for older individuals, as there is less background to check and fewer potential non-clearable instances in the background.

Secret Level Security Clearances

A secret clearance is needed when you have access to information that could cause serious damage to national security. This clearance is more detailed and stricter than confidential. More things can disqualify you from obtaining this clearance. Criminal charges and unpaid bills are the two most common reasons for disqualification for this clearance. Having a clean financial history is extremely important when trying to obtain this clearance since investigations often view someone with debt as someone that can be leveraged or blackmailed.

The investigation can take from a few months to a year to complete. That mainly depends on your background, whether you’ve had multiple past residencies, or having relatives outside of the united states. To obtain this clearance you will be reinvestigated every 10 years.  And as mentioned before, any issues that arise in the process can extend the process timeline by several months or more.

Top Secret Level Security Clearances

A top-secret security clearance is the highest level of security clearance you can obtain. This is needed when you will have access to information that could cause disastrous damage to national security or the United States government. This clearance requires all the same background checks and screening as the confidential and secret clearances but will also involve a polygraph and your past employers, neighbors, family, and others will certainly be interviewed. The investigation can fake from a few months to a little less than two years. To obtain the clearance you must be reinvestigated every 5 years.

Why Is It Important to Get A Security Clearance in Cybersecurity?

Government-related positions account for a good portion of cybersecurity jobs, and the chances are quite high that you may need a security clearance to obtain one.  Also consider that even if you do not work directly for the government, you may work for a government contractor, and in that case, you will still need a clearance to handle government information.

According to an article from the Washington post in 2013 over 900,000 Americans had top-secret clearances and about one-third of them worked for private companies instead of directly with the U.S. government (source).  What I’m pointing out here is that the reach of clearance jobs extends far beyond working directly for the federal government.

Benefits of Getting A Security Clearance

Since getting a security clearance can be difficult, having one can be very beneficial in many ways. Due to shortages in workers having a security clearance, those with a security clearance are often paid more than those without one.  In fact, people with a security clearance are in the top 10 percent of wage earners in the country (source).

Also, having a higher level of clearance greatly improves your career prospects. This makes you a rarer, and therefore more valuable candidate, meaning that many of your job offers will be more lucrative.

Keep in mind that the U.S. government has a high demand for workers with a top-secret clearance, so obtaining this clearance gives you a huge advantage over other candidates, simply because of the great number of people that are otherwise qualified for the job but are disqualified due to lacking the appropriate clearance.  Many recruiters will confirm that finding people with the right technical skills is relatively easy, but their biggest issue is finding people who are cleared by the government.

How to Prepare for a Security Clearance

If you think you may be interested in cybersecurity positions that will require a security clearance at some point in the future, the best thing to do is prepare well in advance to have a security clearance. This means working to keep your record and personal life as clean as possible.  Keep in mind that a security clearance will involve a background check that will include an examination of your criminal record, driving record, financial status, relationships, contacts, foreign travel, and your overall reputation.

Background checks are evaluating, among many other things, what associations or contact you have that may be adversarial to the U.S. government, but also if there are ways that you can be leveraged, blackmailed, or compromised by others.  Perhaps most importantly, a background check is evaluating your overall reputation.  Keep this in mind and consider how it applies to your daily life.  For example, consider:

  • Do you owe people money or regularly fail to pay your bills?
  • What would your neighbors say about you to an investigator?
  • Do you have recent traffic citations or criminal charges?
  • What would your college professors or fellow students say about you and your work ethic?
  • Do you have sections of your work history that you cannot validate or explain?
  • Have you traveled outside of the United States frequently?

I hope you’ll notice by these examples that things that even seem minor can have an impact on your security clearance, since the security clearance investigation will be thorough.

Crazy but True Security Clearance Stories We’ve Heard

Over the years, we’ve talked to many people that have gone through the security clearance process (some successfully and others not), and some of their stories are interesting.  Here are a few we’ll share with you to give you some insight into what you may be in for if you pursue a career that requires a security clearance.

Crazy Security Clearance Story #1:  One applicant shared with us that his security clearance process took nearly two years, and ultimately was unsuccessful, because he had a foreigner living in his home.  Who was the foreigner in question?  His newly adopted six-year-old daughter that was born overseas and brought to the U.S. through the adoption program.  Even though the daughter was a minor, it created enough of a red flag that the process became extended over much more time than originally thought.

Crazy Security Clearance Story #2:  An applicant shared with us that she failed the polygraph test despite continually telling the truth as she knew it.  She couldn’t figure out why she was failing the polygraph until she later learned that she was pregnant.  She found out that this biological change was enough to throw off the notoriously inaccurate test.  She chose to put the process on hold.

Crazy Security Clearance Story #3:  One applicant shared with us that a sticking point in the background check was that the investigator was unable to verify a portion of her work history, which was made nearly impossible because the business she had worked for many years ago had since closed, and there were no contacts available to verify employment.

Questions We’ve Been Asked by Investigators

We’ve been interviewed multiple times by investigators during the clearance process for people we’ve known that were undergoing the security clearance process.  Here are a few of the standard (yet paraphrased) questions we’ve been asked:

  1. Do you know this person outside of work?
  2. When did you first meet this person?
  3. Are you aware of any financial obligations that this person has?
  4. Do you know where else they have worked?
  5. Do you know of any hobbies they have?
  6. Do you know if they’ve traveled outside of the United States, and if so, where and when?
  7. Do you have any reason to believe they may have a reason to harm the United States government?
  8. Do you have any reason to question their character or judgment?
  9. Are you aware of any foreign contact they may have?
  10. Do you have any reason to believe that they may be compromised, or can be comprised by a foreign person?

What to Do If You Don’t Get Your Clearance

It’s not the end of the world or the end of your cybersecurity career.  A lot of jobs in the private sector do not require a clearance whatsoever. If you have the necessary education, experience, and certifications needed for the job, then you should be in good shape when it comes to finding a non-cleared job.   If you are not a U.S. citizen, then this is your only job option because it is impossible to obtain a clearance if you are not a U.S. citizen.

Also, know that there are plenty of jobs that will hire you without a clearance and help you obtain one while you are working there. If the employer requires you to be cleared, and they believe you are a good fit and worth the investment, they can and probably will sponsor you and help you obtain the clearance.

Final Advice

Obtaining a security clearance in the cybersecurity field is extremely beneficial and would be in your best interest, regardless of whether you are planning to work for the federal government or not. A clearance will give you a leg up over other candidates that do not have one, so if you can get a clearance (and believe you will pass), you should probably take advantage of the opportunity.  If you don’t have a clearance, or cannot get one, there are still many opportunities in cybersecurity available to you.

So, as we discussed obtaining a security clearance is something you should investigate preparing for because government jobs are a vast majority of cybersecurity jobs. A great way to prepare for a security clearance is to live as much by the law as possible. This means keeping your life as clean as you can. Keep your record clean because something as small as a parking ticket can damage your chances of getting a security clearance. It is best to prepare yourself to obtain even a top-secret security clearance so you’re ceiling in the cyber world is as high as possible.

As touched on in the descriptions of the clearances having a good financial history is very important as well. It is necessary to keep your credit score as high as you can and prove that you can handle money. Financial problems are one of the main things that stop people from obtaining a clearance, even the lower level confidential clearance.

Make sure everyone around you knows you are an upstanding citizen. With obtaining higher clearances, people from family members to past coworkers will be interviewed by an investigator. This means you cannot just fake being a good person on paper. As stated, before the process of becoming a professional in the cybersecurity field starts before you even study cyber.

Keep foreign relations to a minimum. Even having a family member who lives outside of the country can and will make the process of obtaining a clearance much longer and more difficult. Since you would be working with national security the government will not be taking any chances.

Remember to keep your social media clean. A lot of people forget the importance of this, but it is very important when it comes to clearances. Showing any signs that you could be a threat to national security on social media will instantly disqualify you from obtaining a clearance.

One of the most important points to follow during the clearance process is to never lie…ever.  Investigators will assume that you’ve made an error at some point in your life, as we all have had.  But lying about it is easy to prove and immediately disqualifies you because you have proved yourself to be untrustworthy.  One example I recall is when someone shared that he was asked if he has ever downloaded music illegally.  He found out that this was not a test of breaking this law (which was very common at the time) but was a test to verify his truthfulness.

Alex Spinnichio

Alex Spinnichio

Alex Spinnichio is a cyber security professional with a passion for networking and digital forensics. He holds a degree in cyber security with aspirations for an IT focused information systems degree. Alex contributes to articles on cyber security career paths and used his passion for film to create a video series to educate others on career pathways in the cyber field. Alex enjoys fishing, football, and longboarding in his free time.