Background check bureau’s IT ‘backbone’ completion more than a year out

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The National Background Investigation Bureau will take over as the federal government’s improved background investigations and security clearance entity Oct. 1, but its more secure and modernized IT infrastructure won’t be fully operational for more than a year.

Senior administration officials involved in the build out of the Office of Personnel Management’s NBIB spoke with reporters Thursday in anticipation of the “semi-autonomous” entity’s launch over the weekend on the progress they’ve made since announcing in January the transformation to replace OPM’s Federal Investigative Services and then next steps forward in making federal background check process more efficient, effective and secure.

Since January, OPM, its NBIB Transition Team and other partners governmentwide have “worked diligently to establish the framework, vision and infrastructure necessary to stand up the NBIB,” OPM acting Director Beth Cobert said. “On Oct. 1, the transition…will begin, and the transformation process will have started from that point on.”

Cobert also named Charles Phalen, most recently the vice president of corporate security for Northrop Grumman Corp. and a former director of security for the CIA, to head the NBIB Thursday.

[Read more: Former CIA official Phalen to head background check bureau]

But really Oct. 1 is more of a starting point than a finish line, Cobert explained. “While we’ve done a tremendous amount of work up until this point, Oct. 1 is the beginning in many ways.”

Indeed, for the Defense Department-operated backend IT infrastructure supporting NBIB, there’s still “a year to 18 months” until the “new, more secure, effective, efficient, modern” support systems are up and running, DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen told reporters.

While DOD and the Defense Information Systems Agency have “started architecting, designing, building, securing, operating and maintaining an IT backbone for the new NBIB” — what it calls the National Background Investigation System — Halvorsen matter-of-factly stated that “no,” the “whole new NBIB IT infrastructure” is not ready.

In fact, he said, it wasn’t until Congress passed a continuing resolution Wednesday that NBIS had the $95 million funding and the authority it needed to start building and procuring new systems, “thanks to bipartisan support.”

“That money is there. We will begin executing it Monday, and begin to rapidly start fielding the new IT systems,” he said.

DISA released a request for information on the NBIS earlier this month. And even when the system is built as initially envisioned, the plan is to continue improving on it as an iterative work in progress.

That doesn’t mean, though, DOD has been sitting around idly.

“We’ve done all of the background work,” Halvorsen said. “In addition to building the new system, we are aggressively working with OPM, law enforcement, all of the other agencies to better secure the current systems at OPM…We’re not just letting the system currently operate the way it was.”

As a reminder, the creation of the NBIB was precipitated by a series of hacks on Office of Personnel Management personnel and security clearance systems in 2014 that compromised the information of more than 20 million Americans.

When the modernized NBIS system is finally fully up-and-running, in addition to securing and protecting “the personal information of millions of Americans and their families using DOD’s cyber expertise,” OPM wants to work with law enforcement of all levels be able to automate background checks to build full, accurate and timely composites of the individuals it is investigating.

“In particular, starting with the work following the Navy Yard tragedy, we have focused on the importance of leveraging technology to ensure we have as complete and accurate access to records as possible. This has been a core focus with work within the Federal Investigative Services group, and it is work that we want to emphasize even more so going forward,” Cobert said.

NBIB’s launch establishes a Federal Investigative Records Enterprise office tasked with promoting “records automation and an increased focus on information sharing agreements with interagency partners, state and local entities, and commercial records providers” and “standardizing data exchanges for records information as a hallmark of the investigations enterprise, leveraging new and evolving data sources such as social media checks,” according to an OPM fact sheet.

Additionally, officials said, the continued evolution of the new background check system will help improve issues with the current backlog processing clearances, which currently takes between 120 and 170 days, depending on an applicant’s requested level of clearance.

The technology is perhaps the most critical aspect of the NBIB buildout. Amid the fallout of the OPM breaches, it became apparent just how important modern and secure IT systems are today to just about any federal agency’s mission.

“That’s why we have created this new role,” Cobert added. “It’s part of the recognition that as we move forward, the role of technology and digital information will be even more critical than it has been in the past, and you want to get a clear leadership and part of you organization focused on that mission.”

So important is the technology, she said, that it will be what continues to drive the evolution of NBIB in the future so the information on millions of Americans isn’t once again made vulnerable to bad actors.

“Speaking about the space that we’re in and how it needs to continue to adapt to the changing environment that we’re in,” Cobert said. “So we have a model, we have a roadmap, we have plans in place, but we’ll continue to adapt those over time as we have new systems that give us a new capabilities.”

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Agencies, Beth Cobert, Cybersecurity, Defense Information Systems Agency, Department of Defense (DOD), Departments, Government IT News, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Procurement, Tech, Terry Halvorsen
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