Fears over remote vetting for officials seeking ‘top secret’ clearance

End of automatic face-to-face interviews risks “catastrophic security breach”, former officer claims
Photo: Howard Lake/Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

By Jim Dunton

22 Feb 2022

UK Security Vetting is risking a “catastrophic security breach” by ending a requirement that officials seeking clearance to view “top secret” documents need a face-to-face interview, it has been claimed.

Officials at UKSV, which is part of the Cabinet Office, are reportedly concerned that increased use of online and phone interviews for so-called “developed vetting” introduced during the pandemic has become a permanent fixture.

The Daily Telegraph said vetting officers had told it face-to-face interviews of up to four hours were vital to uncover individuals’ sexual, financial or personal secrets that could leave them vulnerable to bribery or blackmail by an enemy state – and that remote interviews were no substitute.

Developed vetting,  or DV, is required for any officials with access to top-secret material such as military plans, market-sensitive information, diplomatic cables or nuclear secrets. It covers civil servants, military officers, police and private contractors.

The Telegraph said it had been told by a whistleblower that UKSV had been “restructured” on the assumption that more interviews will be conducted by vetting officers working from home.

One former vetting officer told the paper it was “breathtakingly naive” to expect virtual interviews to be as effective as intense face-to-face sessions in persuading officials to confess their deepest personal secrets.

“Despite protestations to senior managers and even to the chief executive, this is the future of vetting,” they said.

“There will be, at some time in the near future, a catastrophic security breach as a result.”

The Telegraph said the continued use of virtual interviews via “secrure” platforms had been endorsed in a July 2021 policy notice following the buildup of a backlog of face-to-face interviews

The paper also quoted Whitehall historian and crossbench peer Lord Peter Hennessy describing the increased reliance on remote interviewing as “very regrettable” and likely to “seriously diminish” the DV process.

“Even if they asked the same questions, they would not have the same sense of me and me of them,” he said.

The Cabinet Office said there had not been a blanket switch to virtual processes for DV and that checks on applicants for sensitive jobs had not been weakened.

“Government security clearance procedures are extremely robust and involve a wide variety of checks,” a spokesperson said.

“Decisions on whether interviews are undertaken face to face or virtually are taken on a case-by-case basis. This has no impact on the effectiveness of the process.”

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