Should independent security consultants have a security clearance to operate in Australia?

As an SCEC Endorsed Security Zone Consultant, I received a briefing this month from SCEC / ASIO advising that their policy for consultants is changing. The main change is that SCEC Security Zone Consultants will be required to hold a minimum NV1 security clearance from 2018.

This is welcome news and a breath of fresh air in our specialised industry.

Unfortunately, however, no security clearance is required for a person to operate as a general licensed security consultant or adviser in any state or territory. In these circumstances only a simple police check is accepted (except in Tasmania and NT where not even a licence is required).

So, what are the security clearances?

Security clearances provide far more confidence than a simple police check that only identifies if a conviction of a serious offence is recorded. You could be a well-known crime figure or have been involved in corrupt behaviour and still have a “no conviction” police check if you haven’t been convicted.

Security clearances are given at the following levels:

Baseline A Baseline security clearance requires a clearance subject to provide at least 5 years of background information. It allows the holder to access classified information and resources that are classified up to and including PROTECTED.
NV1 An NV1 security clearance requires a clearance subject to provide at least 10 years of background information. It allows the holder access to information and resources that are classified as SECRET.
NV2 An NV2 security clearance requires a clearance subject to provide at least 10 years of background information. It allows the holder access to information and resources that are classified as TOP SECRET.
PV A PV security clearance requires a clearance subject to provide background information to cover the whole of your Life. It allows the holder to access classified information and resources at all classification levels, including certain types of caveated and codeword information.

Basically, a Baseline check is a step above a police check, an NV1 (negative vet level 1) checks referees going back 10 years and examines any areas (financial habits, debts, lifestyle etc.) that may open you to blackmail or financial stress, an NV2 (negative vet level 2) takes the NV1 to the next degree of detail (such as talking to persons that you haven’t listed as referees and closely looking at your financials) and PV (positive vet) which covers your entire life where the information you give them is a guideline only as they will positively investigate you to see if you are suitable. A PV clearance requires personal interviews (very personal!) and you could potentially meet someone in a bar that is vetting you for PV. The basic rule is that if you are not under stress (financial or otherwise) and have no secrets that you don’t care if are on the front page of the news, and have no history of dishonesty or low integrity, then you can obtain the appropriate security clearance. If you are hiding something, then don’t even think about applying for a PV clearance!

A minor obstacle in obtaining a security clearance is that you can’t simply directly apply for one. A Commonwealth Government agency must sponsor you. However, any security consultant that has significant clients will be able to arrange this.

Why are security clearances important?

A client needs to be able to trust that when they engage an independent security consultant that they are receiving impartial expert information that is not subject to being influenced by other agendas and that the consultant isn’t under undue financial pressure to accept gifts from suppliers.

Independent security consultants provide clients with expert advice on product choices, suppliers, budget estimates of costs and other areas where an unethical consultant could be influenced by a supplier’s generosity towards them. Unfortunately, in Australia there are no ethics committees that independent security consultants report to which makes a security clearance all the more important.

The consultants, should not accept any gifts, door prizes at events, commissions, free travel to overseas seminars or trade shows or anything else. They should accept nothing. They probably should even pay for the coffee when they meet with suppliers.

A security clearance allows the client to have confidence that the consultant has the integrity to provide the services without outside influences tainting their advice.

So what’s the current environment?

As independent consultants, we receive offers of lavish gifts from product and services providers that we always reject. Some have even involved expensive travel and some have involved winning the door prize competition at events where we actively refused to enter the competition.

We have been invited to attend discussions with other consultants (as a group) on projects that we are bidding against them for. We ignore these invitations.

The industry has had a number of unlicensed security consultants and consultants operating under fake security licence numbers.

So, what to do?

If you are looking at engaging a security consultant:

  • Ask for evidence of their security clearance. If they haven’t been cleared to at least NV1, then ask why they haven’t been able to obtain this.
  • Check the validity of the security license of the person selling you the services and the person providing it.
  • Check their references and ask their referees who else to talk to.

The integrity of truly independent security consultants largely depends upon the clients’ vigilance when engaging them.

Simon Walker

Author: Simon Walker

Simon established Connley Walker Pty Ltd in 1996. He is a Fellow of Engineers Australia, a Registered Building Practitioner, a Member of the Australian Institute of Project Management, a Registered International Professional Engineer, a Registered APEC Engineer, and an SCEC Endorsed Security Zone Consultant. He is the author of the books Operational risk management: Controlling opportunities and threats, 2001 ISBN 0957907400 and Hospital and Health Care Security in Australia, 2009 ISBN 978-0-9579074-1-6.