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US plans to scan federal employees with secret clearances

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials are planning a sweeping system of electronic monitoring that would tap into government, financial and other databases to scan the behavior of many of the 5 million federal employees with secret clearances, current and former officials told The Associated Press.

The system is intended to identify rogue agents, corrupt officials and leakers, and draws on a Defense Department model under development for more than a decade, according to officials and documents reviewed by the AP.

Intelligence officials have long wanted a computerized system that could continuously monitor employees, in part to prevent cases similar to former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. His disclosures exposed secretive U.S. surveillance operations.

An administration review of the government's security clearance process, due this month, is expected to support continuous monitoring as part of a package of comprehensive changes.

Privacy advocates and government employee union officials expressed concerns that continuous electronic monitoring could intrude into individuals' private lives, prompt flawed investigations and put sensitive personal data at greater risk. Supporters say the system would have safeguards.

Workers with secret clearances are already required to undergo background checks of their finances and private lives before they are hired and again during periodic re-investigations.

“What we need is a system of continuous evaluation where when someone is in the system and they're cleared initially, then we have a way of monitoring their behavior, both their electronic behavior on the job as well as off the job,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress last month.

Monitoring of employees at some agencies could begin as early as September and be fully operational across the government by September 2016. The price tag, Clapper said, “is going to be costly.”

Budget documents released this week show the Pentagon requesting nearly US$9 million next year for its insider threat-related research.

Current and former officials familiar with the DNI's planning said the monitoring system will collect records from multiple sources of information about employees. They will use private credit agencies, law enforcement databases and threat lists, military and other government records, licenses, data services and public record repositories. During random spot checks, the system's software will sift through the data to spot unusual behavior patterns.

The system could also link to outside databases to flag questionable behavior, said the officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the plans. Investigators will analyze the information along with data separately collected from social media and, when necessary, polygraph tests, officials said.

The proposed system would mimic monitoring systems already in use by the airline and banking industries, but it most closely draws from a 10-year-old Pentagon research project known as the Automated Continuous Evaluation System, officials said.

'Thoughtful, educated, careful human beings' Needed: Expert

Gene Barlow Jr., a spokesman for the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, the DNI agency coordinating the system's development, said ACES would be part of the DNI's “continuous evaluation solution.” The DNI's system would extend across the executive branch, he said.

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