This blog takes no view on pending legal matters, including The Justice Department’s accusation that the federal government’s largest background checker committed fraud by mass-producing flawed background checks over a period of four years. The Wall Street Journal story is here

We’ve written previously about this contractor, USIS, because this is the company that did the security clearance for Edward Snowdendue diligence on edward snowden.jpg.

While we can’t comment directly on the allegations that USIS “flushed” thousands of background checks through its system to the apparent delight of staffers who expressed their glee via email, here are a few things we can say with confidence about due diligence done properly.

  • If you’re paying a good amount of money for the background check, you are paying for a human being to look over the results that a computer spits out. What the computer will give the investigator is usually a jumble of contradictory findings about where someone has lived and worked over the past 20 years. It will insert lawsuits or criminal backgrounds of different people with the same name as your subject. It will leave out major chunks of a person’s biography. If your background check is worth anything, you need to have a person figure out which parts of the databases are truthful and which are not. That is not a practice that is amenable to an assembly-line approach.
  • Proper due diligence about a person, especially someone who will receive security clearance to handle sensitive information, requires interviews. Think about how much information you can find about yourself on the internet: everyone you’ve ever worked with? Dated? Had an argument with? Those things are gathered not by looking at databases, the web and social media exclusively, but by interviewing. And when we interview people, we don’t just check references provided by the subject of the background check, we look for those people the subject did not want to us to find.

Remember also: many public records are not on line and take time to be retrieved on paper, analyzed and reported by a human being; that most things floating around about a person before 2004 won’t be on Facebook because Facebook did not exist 11 years ago; that most people with something to hide will try to hide it.

You know how ordering a computer from Dell takes a few days or more, even though the components in the product are all mass produced extremely quickly and efficiently? It takes a special, careful process to coordinate the delivery of the components, put the mass produced stuff together, and then arrange to get the finished product to your individual residence. At the end, the computer built to your specifications and delivered to your address is unique.

Due diligence is somewhat the same: while it relies on computers and technology that can process information quickly, a background check is not amenable to mass production because each person is different – much more different and a thousand times more complex than a desktop and a couple of speakers.