What Is Public Trust Security Clearance?

By Ruth Mayhew

Job-seekers looking for employment with the federal government have to complete a lengthy employment application. Upon receiving a conditional job offer, they have another application to complete should the job require security clearance. The lowest level of security clearance is "public trust," and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management usually handles the applications and investigations for prospective government employees. Applicants who want to stay one step ahead may want to review the clearance application forms beforehand so they understand the type of information required during the clearance investigation process.

Security Clearance

The term "security clearance" denotes the level of access to classified information. Security clearance isn't just for federal government employees, although the type of clearance determines the level of federal government information to which you have access. Federal government contractors or employees of businesses with federal contracts may have security clearance. Federal government employees may have various levels of security clearance, depending on their jobs.

Security Clearance Levels

The federal government grants three basic levels of clearance: confidential, secret and top secret. The security clearance level determines the type of information or data to which you have access. Public trust clearance — sometimes referred to as a public trust position — gives you access to general confidential information. Secret clearance enables access to sensitive information that's considered classified, which is information above confidential. Top secret clearance is the highest level of clearance, generally reserved for officials in the U.S. Department of Defense and other intelligence-related employees. Secret and top secret clearance levels can take several months to more than two years to complete. All federal government employees go through a extensive background investigation or investigation for one of the clearance levels.

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Confidential Access

Information considered confidential refers to names, addresses, birth dates and personal identification numbers, such as Social Security numbers. Public trust clearance is all that's necessary for what the federal government considers confidential information. Some use "public trust" and "confidential" interchangeably. Public trust clearance is the lowest level of security clearance. The processing for a public trust security clearance can take as little as six weeks or as long as six months. Employees of the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration generally have public trust security clearance due to the nature of their duties in handling taxpayers' personally identifiable information.

Public Trust Clearance Application

The federal government uses Standard Form 85, or SF85, titled "Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions" for processing public trust clearance investigations. The application itself is seven pages long, and in addition to completing the application form, applicants must authorize the release of certain medical records, financial records and social history information such as marriages, divorces and child support matters. Applicants who falsify information on the SF85 are committing a federal crime punishable by a fine up to $10,000, a prison term up to five years, or both.In addition, employees already in the government job they needed clearance for can be fired if it's determined they provided false information.

Public Trust Investigation

Applicants for public trust security clearance have to disclose employment and residential history that goes back seven years. A federal employee or contractor with public trust clearance must have her clearance renewed every 15 years to document any status, residential or employment changes. Applicants for federal jobs are cautioned when they are being investigated for a public trust clearance that the investigator must contact the prospective government employee's current employer. This usually means her job search will no longer be a secret.

Public Trust Tips

The key to passing a background investigation for a public trust position is honesty. The federal government wants to know that you're drug-free and that your finances generally are in good order; however, most important is full disclosure. Withholding information can have more of a negative impact than if you had disclosed the less-than-ideal information in the first place.

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